Life in Between Death -- In Media and Science

Death Ascendency:

Scientists, pollsters and journalists like to complain that Americans can't be bothered to read or understand science. That distresses these pundits. I don't believe their contentions are altogether accurate or their hand-wringing justified, but true enough, Americans seem distracted or even obsessed with subjects other than science. Like what?

Death, for one. Remember, the hoopla over death panels, and fears about the death of a grandpa because of illegal immigrants? Maybe you've forgotten the multi-month media requiem for Michael Jackson, but can remember via Time Magazine's 100 page Special Commemorative Michael Jackson Issue, still on the news stands through October. And if you missed that, you can now watch the movie. If Jackson was reclusive in life, his death just won't die.

And it's not just Michael Jackson. This summer and fall, the string of newsworthy celebrity deaths led MSNBC, the New York Times and others to recount the "the endless funereal season". Trying to slip in a post on death over the last few months, if you didn't want to seem like you were milking the trend in an unseemly way, (because we're the unblog blog) was near impossible.

The preoccupation with death spanned news on politics, employment and entertainment. What did AP feature in a story on career advice? "Funeral science: One business that's still alive: Amid layoffs and a weak job market, interest in mortuary science surges." And after death it's not over, as the New York Times pointed out in: "After a Death, the Pain That Doesn't Go Away".

You can't escape death -- the theme I mean. It's what people are living, breathing and reading. Non-fiction? At least four new books focus on death. "Annililation: The Sense and Significance of Death", "The Philosophy of Death", "Our Stories: Essays on Life, Death and Free Will", and "Death". You get the gist, but for more, FT reviewed the books here. Not satisfied with new books? Someone along my route today poured over "Stiff: The Curious Life of Cadavers".

And in fiction? Mass-market fiction? Deaths by aliens, apparitions, and evil-doers, not to mention more than one bubble-gum romance featuring irresistible marble-chested vampires. In sunny, otherwise cheerful September, 12 of the 20 best selling titles from the NYT mass-market fiction list were: "Dead Until Dark", "Frankenstein: Dead or Alive", "From Dead To Worse", "Club Dead", "The Bodies Left Behind", "Dead To The World", "Living Dead In Dallas", "Dead As A Doornail", "Promises in Death" "Chosen To Die", "Definitely Dead", and "Altogether Dead".

The remaining 8 of the 20 best sellers didn't bother to include "Death" in the title, but don't despair, it's there. You could chose between "The Assassin" (subject obvious), a book on "scandalous deaths", or one each on death from lung cancer, a killer, a dead lover, a dead friend, the death of a child from acute promyelocytic leukemia, a string of dead medical tourists, and last but not least - a book that brings Elvis back from the dead to help investigate some mysterious deaths. Now at Halloween and moving into the darker, more appropriately morbid time of year, the media is naturally out of step so the mass market fiction list looks slightly more upbeat -- though Death still holds its own.

Until the Smell of Death Do Us Cart You Away

So what's a science writer do in The Demon Haunted World of deathly news and entertainment preoccupation? Science journalists struggling to work within this dreary paradigm last summer published versions of "The Smell of Death", a story about experiments on bugs by scientists at McMaster University.

Previous research had showed that noxious chemicals expelled by some animals upon death repel their live companions. It's true. Necrophoresis is the term for the behavior of ants and bees when they move their dead away from their nests. Scientists such as Henry Christopher McCook in 1879, E.O. Wilson, in 1958 first documented necrophoresis. Wilson showed that worker ants moved the dead bodies out of the living spaces, and the ants and were motivated by something other than the untidy look of their comrades carcasses strewn about the nest.

To investigate, Wilson's team sprayed what I'll call "eau de ground up dead ants" on live ants, and observed the ants move their perfumed but live fellow ants away from the nest as if they were dead. Following from that observation, researchers learned that the ants expelled a specific scent when they died that other ants of the same species could detect. Wilson determined that chemicals called oleic acids motivated movement of the dead bodies by their fellow worker ants. Scientists than discovered that while bees and ants remove their dead, termites merely avoid their dead -- they're necrophobic.

Building on a century of research on "necromones" then, the McMaster University scientists dispersed necromones among insects such as caterpillars, which aren't known to expel their own dispersants but do aggregate like social bees and ants as well as the semi-social termites. Their experiments showed that the fatty oleic acid compounds also repelled woodlice and pillbugs. Since necromones seem to effect multiple species, the scientists now suggest that the death chemical is common across many species.

Programmed Cell Death -- Upbeat, Hopeful, Vital

What else could scientists write about? Programmed Cell Death (PCD) springs to mind. Not only does it have "death" in the title, like all the best selling mass market titles, but it's actually vital to life and therefore a rather hopeful, non-dreary subject. PCD occurs in plants and animals, yeasts and bacteria. The human body creates more than a thousand billion of cells and just as many die through PCD, a carefully orchestrated event which allows some cells to be destroyed through a process that assures that healthy cells proliferate. PCD is different than necrosis, when cells die due to blood loss or insult. There's a bounty of research on PCD and it has it's own journals -- enough reading and writing that could see us well through the winter months and into spring.

Although the proliferation of cell death research and understanding is relatively recent, in the 19th century scientists noticed changes in the cells during insect metamorphosis and tadpole development which suggested cell death. Although early research focused on phagocytosis, in the mid-20th century evolving technology provided scientists with more sophisticated microscopes and histologic techniques which gave them a clearer view of cell processes. In their 2001 history of PCD in Nature Review Molecular Cell Biology1, Richard A. Lockshin and Zahra Zakeri, describe how the 1960's at Harvard, afternoon teas attended by Carroll Williams' lab members served as humorous and informative exchanges for "ideas of the day", and in time coined the term "programmed cell death".

In 2002 the The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Sydney Brenner, H. Robert Horvitz and John E. Sulston for their discoveries concerning "genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death." The researchers used the model organism nematode Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) to study cell death and established for the first time that certain genes control cell death. That there were genes controlling death showed that cell death is an integral part of development, not an accident.

Apoptosis (from the Greek word "falling off") is the most commonly studied form of cell death, although there are others. The most common example of cell death is the development of hands and feet, which start off as spade-like clumps of cells, then through apoptosis of the cells in-between, the fingers and toes emerge. In the developing brain millions of nerve cells get "pruned" through apoptosis to assure that proper connections are made. For instance in the development of the retina in the eye, 90% of certain types of cells die. Rather than being limited by cell biology techniques to observing cell death, scientists can now also use molecular biology techniques to understand specific proteins and genetic processes involved in regulating cell death.

When cell death goes awry, the repercussions are serious. In cancer, the cell death pathways malfunction and too many cells are allowed to proliferate. In Parkinson and Alzheimer diseases, cell death pathways allow the destruction of too many cells. Now scientists are zeroing in on specific proteins or pathways that could be altered to prevent aberrations in cell death that result in disease. From not knowing that cell death was an important part to living organisms, scientists are realizing how much it dominates life - sort of like the paperback mass-market fiction list.

1"Programmed cell death and apoptosis: origins of the theory" 545-550 (July 2001) | doi:10.1038/35080097

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