January 27, 2011

Your cold symptoms are your fault

I'm not usually one to play the blame game, but you need to know that when you get a cold, your symptoms are not the virus's fault. They're your fault.

Okay, so the rhinovirus (common cold) I drew looks like a floating cookie monster head. I take full responsibility for this, but you should know that rhinoviruses are indeed circular with lots of texture.  And at the time, blue seemed like a good color choice for this. 
Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body

I read about a study in Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: a day in the life or your body by Jennifer Ackerman (which I thoroughly enjoyed--go get it right now) in which participants were exposed to the rhinovirus and their responses were tracked. I don't think I would have participated in this study willingly.

So like I said, the researchers exposed people to the cold virus. Almost everyone got infected with the virus, meaning it started replicating and destroying cells, but only 75% of the subjects developed the hallmark cold symptoms. That leaves a whopping 25% that can get a virus, but not get sick. How dare they.

And it gets worse. The people who exhibit the typical cold symptoms (stuffy nose, sore throat, etc.) are those with stronger immune systems.

The stuffy nose, sore throat, and cough are all caused by your body's inflammatory response, a valiant effort to banish bodily invaders that just so happens to simultaneously make you miserable. Two birds, one stupid stone. Since people with "stronger" immune systems have a more pronounced inflammatory response, their experience of the common cold is made all the more miserable. Oh, the irony of it all.

Here's sort of what happens.

I wasn't about to attempt to accurately represent the complicated mess that we call sinuses, so here is an ultra-simplified version of your nose and throat.

Blood vessels dilate to bring immune cells to the area, but this also makes your nose feel stuffy.

In an effort to flush out the invader, your nose produces mucus.

The sheer power of this snot river may also stimulate your sneeze reflex.

And most unfortunately, nose goblins contain chemicals that activate pain nerves in your throat.

So while your body is all caught up making your miserable, it's easy to entirely lose track of the virus that started this horrible mess.

I can see so many life lessons in this. Like "Sometimes our greatest strength is our greatest weakness." Yeah, that's deep.  Or, "Don't get so freaked out about a problem that the real problem becomes your freaking out about it." Or even, "Boogers. They make my throat hurt." But mostly, "Don't automatically pull out the big guns every time you have a problem. You never know, it might just go away."

The inflammatory response is not unlike nuclear weaponry. It'll definitely kill the enemy, but it might kill you too, bro.

January 20, 2011

Protists: they make no sense

I don't like having to label things. I don't mean an actual sticker label--I find that oddly satisfying...

But I don't like having to take a complicated person or thing and slap a simplistic label on it, perhaps because I especially hate it when this happens to me.

But unfortunately for me, labeling and categorizing things (which should never be confused with actually understanding things) is not only part of human nature, but it's a big part of biology.

Scientists are usually pretty good at cataloging the diversity of life.

But there are times that our human system for organizing and cataloging the diversity of life doesn't work as well, and I, with my anti-label sentiment, take glee in it.

Meet the Protists.

Protists are eukaryotic--they have a nucleus, but they don't fit into any of the other eukaryotic filing cabinets known as animals, plants, and fungi. If a creature with a nucleus isn't any of those, it's a protist. For this reason, Kingdom Protista is occasionally called the "junk drawer kingdom."

Here are a few examples of protists:



Slime molds

Gigantor kelps

Can't you see how they are all super closely related?

They're not grouped based on what they are; they're grouped based on what they're not.

But it's okay. Protists don't mind. They are proud to be what they are--the weirdest kingdom of all. They actually represent the ancestors of all the more recognizable eukaryotes--plants, animals, and fungi. That's why this kingdom is so very random: it's evidence of the evolutionary tinkering that brought about modern multicellular life. Some protists are even referred to as "animal-like," "plant-like," and "fungus-like," lowering scientists to the valley girl level.

Perhaps the most infamous protist of all is plasmodium, the protist that causes malaria. It's mosquitos that spread the protists around, but the disease is caused by plasmodium. That jerkface.

Regarding classifying protists, never forget that our system of classifying and naming living things is just our human brains trying to make sense of a vast and complicated natural world that does not want to be made sense of. Translation: we try to place order over nature, but it doesn't always fit quite right. Plants and animals fit into nice little boxes with all their similar traits, and bacteria are unmistakably bacteria. But protists... They laugh at our pathetic attempts to define them. So it's not really that they make no sense, as the title of this post says, but rather that we can't make sense of them. And that is why I love them.

January 11, 2011

Arsenic-Based Life

So here, a month after it was published, I have an explanation of the whole arsenic-based life whatnot. I started writing a normal article, but the number of drawings I was doing seemed to lend itself better to a video.

Now that I've made the video, I'm hesitant to publish it because the dork factor here is overwhelming. So while I bite my lip and cringe slightly, I present to you my second Beatrice video: