I Am Shiva, Destroyer of Proteins

By Carl Zimmer | October 5, 2009 6:41 pm

Deep down, we are all cannibals. In tomorrow’s issue of the New York Times, I take a look at the science of autophagy: how our cells destroy themselves to live again. It turns out that this cellular cannibalism is crucial for our well-being in many ways. Scientists are now trying to improve our ability to destroy ourselves as a potential treatment for diseases like cancer and Huntington disease, and perhaps even to slow the process of aging itself. Check it out.

(Note to link-lovers: the article takes you directly to some of the primary literature. Progress!)

[Image: Royal Academy of Arts]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Medicine, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (6)

  1. John Trane

    “There must be no barriers for freedom of inquiry. There is no
    place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free
    to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any
    evidence, to correct any errors.
    —J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind, p. 114 (1955)

    “This is the story of how biology of the 20th century neglected
    and otherwise mishandled the study of what is arguably the
    most important problem in all of science: the nature of the
    evolutionary process. This problem has suffered the indignity
    of being dismissed as unimportant to a basic understanding of
    biology by molecular biology; it went effectively unrecognized
    by a microbiology still in the throes of trying to find itself; and
    it became the private domain of a quasi-scientific movement,
    who secreted it away in a morass of petty scholasticism, effectively
    disguising the fact that their primary concern with it was
    ideological, not scientific. Despite this discouraging beginning,
    our story will end well: the study of the microbial world at the
    beginning of the 21st century is liberating biology from the
    Procrustean bed of dogma on which it has been cast for so
    long, and a new understanding of evolution as a process is
    already beginning to form, in a manner that will eventually
    supersede the scientifically stultifying language-culture of the
    20th century.”

    Carl R. Woese, and Nigel Goldenfeld, “How the Microbial World Saved Evolution from the Scylla of Molecular Biology and the Charybdis of the Modern Synthesis” [8-page PDF], doi:10.1128/MMBR.00002-09, p14-21 v73, Microbiol. Mol. Biol. Rev., Mar 2009.


  2. Oh, cool! I’ll read this tomorrow morning when I’m more awake. I plan on writing about it in my Gen Bio II Lab Journal. (If my prof didn’t know you before, he will by the end of the semester.) You’re article about the social intelligence of dogs is also in there.

  3. johnk

    Carl, are you paraphrasing the key line in Michael Clayton, “I am Shiva the Goddess of Death””?

    Just saw the movie on TV. Really good.

    A little blogging told me that Shiva is not female and not the Goddess of Death. Death of Proteins, perhaps.

    [Carl: For some reason, Shiva came to mind via Robert Oppenheimer.]

  4. Carl, this is interesting.

    What I say here is all speculation.

    I have always thought that cancer was maybe a way of making life more than life, or to put simply, an overshot of cell growth – too much life and hence too much cell division and overgrowth in a specific area, that overtakes. So it could be that the immune system in this instance, has evolved not able to destroy just the right amount of cell growth and the balance is out. From this perpective, maybe as a polar opposite, an over reactive immune system (MS, Asthma, Lupus) would indicate something just as bad, but rids cancer – the trade off from the body over evolution. It could be that pollutants and viruses (evloving with us – or we evolve with them?) are responable for re-programming our immune responnse back to it’s beahaviour towards cancer itself etc. Makes you wonder. If there are any studies into whether people with MS, Asthma, Lupus are immune to a certain type of cancer, that could give us clues.


  5. So basically, I am saying by looking at a problem elsewhere, that maybe be indirectly related, we might be able to use that to combat one nearer to home.



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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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