Greater Love Has No Cell

The biblical allegory written into our bodies. /

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).

We naturally think of death as something awful—a scourge to be dreaded and put off for as long as possible. But biological death has its positive side. Think of self-sacrifice—death for the good of others. That kind of death we think of as altruistic, even noble, attributing it to heroes or saints. And most of us don’t realize that such self-sacrifice is written into our bodies, at the deepest levels of our being.

The process is called apoptosis, in which cells kill themselves from within. It is not death due to overwhelming damage—that’s another process and called by another name. Rather it is a programmed process whereby cells self-destruct. They shred their DNA, internal organelles (specialized parts of cells) condense, and membranes bleb (blister). Then scavenger cells come by and clean up the remnants for recycling.

Cells are following their own programming when they kill themselves, but it can’t be accidental that such a program exists. Special biochemical pathways have been designed to carry out this self-destruction—quite complex pathways. Multiple signals feed in, turning genes on or off, so it doesn’t all happen in the wrong place or at the wrong time. It’s essential that the whole finely-tuned system works in proper sequence.

So why does such a process exist? It doesn’t make sense that biology, which is mainly about survival and reproduction, should have a programmed process for cellular suicide. Yet apoptosis is necessary for our survival, and we are only beginning to understand why.

For example, cellular death shapes our bodies at the beginning ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 21 / April 30, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 21: Redeeming the Law, whale migration, cell sacrifice, and farsightedness.

  2. I Fought the Law

    Now I think it’s time to rehabilitate its unsavory reputation. /

  3. The Largest Beast’s Long Migration

    Blue whales shock us with their size. But their efficiency and endurance are greater still. /

  4. Presbyopia

    ‘By some miracle, she felt a lifting / lost the tyranny and weight of near things’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff /

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