Cells

  • Nearly all your cells are built to fundamentally the same plan: they have an outer casing or membrane, a nucleus wherein resides the necessary genetic information to keep you going, and a busy space between the two called the cytoplasm. The membrane is not, as most of us imagine it, a durable, rubbery casing, something that you would need a sharp pin to prick. Rather, it is made up of a type of fatty material known as a lipid, which has the approximate consistency “of a light grade of machine oil,” to quote Sherwin B. Nuland. If that seems surprisingly insubstantial, bear in mind that at the microscopic level things behave differently. To anything on a molecular scale water becomes a kind of heavy-duty gel and a lipid is like iron.-A Short History by Bryson.

  • Virtually all the food and oxygen you take into your body are delivered, after processing, to the mitochondria, where they are converted into a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP.-A Short History by Bill Bryson.

  • ATP molecules are essentially little battery packs that move through the cell providing energy for all the cell’s processes, and you get through a lot of it. At any given moment, a typical cell in your body will have about one billion ATP molecules in it, and in two minutes every one of them will have been drained dry and another billion will have taken their place. Every day you produce and use up a volume of ATP equivalent to about half your body weight. Feel the warmth of your skin. That’s your ATP at work.-A Short History by Bryson.

  • Apoptosis: Programmed cell death.

  • When, as occasionally happens, a cell fails to expire in the prescribed manner, but rather begins to divide and proliferate wildly, we call the result cancer. Cancer cells are really just confused cells. Cells make this mistake fairly regularly, but the body has elaborate mechanisms for dealing with it. It is only very rarely that the process spirals out of control. On average, humans suffer a fatal malignancy for each 100 million billion cell divisions. Cancer is bad luck in every possible sense of the term.-A Short History by Bryson.

  • The wonder of cells is not that things occasionally go wrong, but that they manage everything so smoothly for decades at a stretch. They do so by constantly sending and monitoring streams of messages—a cacophony of messages—from all around the body: instructions, queries, corrections, requests for assistance, updates, notices to divide or expire. Most of these signals arrive by means of couriers called hormones, chemical entities such as insulin, adrenaline, estrogen and testosterone that convey information from remote outposts like the thyroid and endocrine glands. Still other messages arrive by telegraph from the brain or from regional centers in a process called paracrine signaling. Finally, cells communicate directly with their neighbors to make sure their actions are coordinated.-A Short History by Bryson.