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We Are Full of Critters

The human body is a colony of ten trillion co-operating cells

Paul Ingraham • 6m read

We are, each of us, a multitude. Within us is a little universe.

Carl Sagan

A cell is loose, wet bag of chemistry about a thousandth of a millimetre wide, give or take. It is the ridiculously complicated chemical apparatus that surrounds and supports the self-replication of molecules of DNA. Not one molecule of a cell would exist if it did not somehow make DNA even better at making copies of itself.

In other words, every aspect of cellular biology facilitates replication.

A scanning electron microscope image from normal circulating human blood. One can see red blood cells, several white blood cells including lymphocytes, a monocyte, a neutrophil, and many small disc-shaped platelets.

Cells learned to play well with other cells quite early in the history of life. It wasn’t that they were neighbourly: it was just convenient. Cells that happened to work together well, due to happy accidents, inevitably started to outnumber the competition. As long as co-operation made replication more efficient, there was no reason for the co-operation not to get more and more complicated.

Therefore, the human body is a colony of very roughly thirty trillion co-operating cells, each of which is as complicated as the organism as a whole,1 and as varied in appearance and behaviour as all the animals of a jungle. Yet each one is taking instructions from the same master set of 46 enormous molecules of DNA hiding at the center of every cell like the Wizard of Oz. Somehow, the DNA tells each cell what kind of cell to be: a toe cell, a lung cell, or a blood cell.2

Chart showing cell populations in the human body.

Why an article about cells on a pain website?

A major theme of this website is that the nature of aches, pains, and injuries is much more complicated that the simplistic "biomechanical" perspective that still dominates the world of physical therapy. There are many kinds of pain and subtle pathologies that cause pain, and not many of them can be understood by thinking of the body like it’s a machine that gets out of alignment and breaks down. Things like posture are far less important than most people think; we cannot just stretch ourselves back into shape; and so on. It’s almost never that simple, and that's why very few pain treatments are effective.

To understand pain, we need to think more in terms of biology and biochemistry, topics like subtle systemic inflammation (which as all about the immune system). To understand anything in medicine, ultimately you have to understand biology, and cells are the very complicated bricks of biology.

Therefore… an article about cells! Of course it’s not directly relevant to the science of pain. But it is very relevant in countless indirect ways.

Cellular muscles make for very lively critters

Although some cells are like barnacles and spend their whole lives anchored to the same moist patch of biological real estate, it is important to understand that cells are by no means passive or inert, and many of them are downright mobile.

Somehow, cells can be extremely athletic. An angry immune system cell at work, for instance, floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee more than any boxer could ever imagine: their speed, reach and agility is truly astounding. Moving pictures of them are always startling: we are full of critters.

Lively critters.

To see what I mean, watch this movie of a neutrophil hunting and killing a bacterium. (This is actually quite an old film, using old technology: I have seen modern video microscopy that is much more impressive, but unfortunately could not find any of that footage to include with this article or even anywhere else on the web.)

White Blood Cell Chases Bacteria  0:29

How do they do that? Their dynamic nature reflects the intensely dynamic nature of matter all the way down to the atomic scale.4 Cellular mobility is powered by amazing molecular machines — engines of movement like the relatively familiar sarcomeres of muscle tissue, but there are many more of them. They can be thought of as the “muscles” of cells.

The nature of cells

Although defined by a membrane of molecules, cells are actually as permeable as a kitchen strainer. Various chosen atoms and molecules are allowed to flood across the membrane like a rip tide, while others are vigorously pumped one way or the other at great energy expense. For instance, a significant portion of the food we eat is burned solely for the purpose of powering sodium ion pumps in cell membranes.

All of this pumping maintains a pleasant living environment for the cells, a cell soup resembling sea water. The resemblance is not a coincidence. When organisms started emerging from the oceans some three billion years ago, they simply took the water with them, carefully packaged. A human being is a kind of Club Med for cells, a vast civilization of them all cooperating to make sure that they are perpetually swimming in a warm, fresh, oxygenated puddle of nutrient-rich water. If you understand this, much of physiology is more easily understood.

But how do ten trillion cells organize themselves into a human being … often with scarcely a single significant foul up for several decades? How do ten trillion cells even stand up? Even this fairly simple thing of rising up to a height of five or six feet or so is a fairly impressive trick for a bunch of cells who are, individually, no taller than a coffee stain. See Ten Trillion Cells Walked Into a Bar: A humourous and unusual perspective on how, exactly, a person is even able to stand up, let alone walk into a bar.

Microscopes versus telescopes

From a long New Yorker article about the quest to build a basic cell, by James Somers:

Today, we take for granted that we are made of cells—liquidy sacs containing the Golgi apparatus, the endoplasmic reticulum, the nucleus. We accept that each of us was once a single cell, and that packed inside it was the means to build a whole body and maintain it throughout its life. “People ought to be walking around all day, all through their waking hours, calling to each other in endless wonderment, talking of nothing except that cell,” the physician Lewis Thomas wrote, in his book “The Medusa and the Snail.” But telescopes make more welcome gifts than microscopes. Somehow, most of us are not itching to explore the cellular cosmos.

Well, I am itching. Astronomy probably is more popular than cellular biology, but that’s partly because it’s just so much more difficult to “explore the cellular cosmos.” You cannot buy a microscope powerful enough to reveal cells the way a surprisingly cheap telescope can reveal Jupiter or the Andromeda Galaxy. If only!

About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter., or subscribe:

Related Reading

This article is part of the Biological Literacy series — fun explorations of how the human body works, what I think of as “owner’s manual stuff.” Here are ten of the most popular articles on this theme:

What’s new in this article?

Jun 11, 2023 — This article does not need many updates, but today I added a short section: “Why an article about cells on a pain website?” Because it is a bit odd.

2022 — Added a section, “Microscopes versus telescopes.”

2004 — Publication.

Notes

  1. Well, not quite. By numbers, we have a lot more red blood cells and platelets than all the other types combined, and those cell are relatively simple. But all the other cells are rather complex, and there’s still trillions of ‘em.
  2. This is one of the great remaining mysteries of biology. Although I think considerable progress has been made in the 20th Century, it has not happened in a way that has trickled down to a plain English explanation for the lay person.
  3. Although I have repeated the myth, I have frowned at it suspiciously several times. I’ve always thought it was obvious that mass had to be considered for it to be meaningful, which is why I particularly like the chart. I also always assumed that most of the bacteria surely had to be in the poop chute, which isn’t such a fun fact. The idea that we have more bacteria than cells sort of implies symbiosis on a vast scale, bacteria everywhere, which is true in a way … but the bacterial populations outside the gut are really small compared to our own cell populations.
  4. Hoffmann PM. Life's Ratchet: How molecular machines extract order from chaos. New York: Basic Books; 2012.

    A wonderful but difficult read about the dazzlingly complicated chemistry and nanoscale “machines” that are the most basic explanation for how living things work. As books go, it doesn’t get much more difficult or rewarding. Although the history of science will bore many readers, it’s impossible to appreciate what we know today without hearing the story of how we got here. It is amazing how much we figured out by inference decades, centuries, even millenia before we had the tools to actually examine these things. And, now that we can, they are still among the hardest things to understand that humans have ever grappled with.

    Chapter 7, “Twist and Route,” is about the molecular machinery of movement and muscle: the motor proteins kinesin, myosin, and dynein. “There is not one type of kinesin, myosin, or dynein doing one type of job. Instead, like a fleet of customizable trucks, there are superfamilies of molecular motors, with eighteen known classes of myosins, ten classes of kinesins, and two classes of dyneins.” This rabbit hole goes deep.

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