Big Eaters

The cells that protect and defend us—by eating lunch. /

When I was in second grade, our elementary school held a play that told the tale of an infection—played by a third grader in a dragon costume—invading the body and then being vanquished. My class was cast as macrophages, which chew up invaders to the body. We were told that they are “big eaters,” but it was not until many years later that I learned that macrophage comes from the Greek word for “big eater.” It is an apt description.

I don’t know if this was the inspiration for it, but I became a macrophage biologist, and these cells proved to be a source of endless wonder to me. It is an amazing thing to peer into a microscope or perform an experiment and gain a glimpse into this vast invisible world within our bodies. In the great story of God’s work in the world, the drama of macrophage-versus-invader is a small but important tale.

Munching Sentries

So what are macrophages? They are a type of white blood cell, which are all involved in protecting the body from invaders and from rogue cells. Macrophages are clear, with long arms that help them move extending from their bodies. Found throughout the body, standing guard in different organs as sentries, macrophages patrol for irregular activity and munch on anything they deem suspicious. These hungry defenders also help clean up wounds, removing dead cells and debris so new, healthy tissue can grow.

Dying cells are easy for a macrophage to recognize: they put up a cellular white flag, which is seen by the macrophage as an invitation not to negotiate terms of surrender but to have some lunch. However, if a group of disease-causing bacteria were hiding in the body, there would be no “eat me” sign. Instead, ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 9 / November 13, 2014
  1. Editors’ Note
  2. Grace in a Strip Bar

    Being a friend of sinners with discernment and love. /

  3. The Day God Died

    The most terrible and wonderful moment in history. /

  4. To the Oldest Recorded Supernova

    ‘After two millennia / You are still here’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff

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