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The Language of Life

Those trying to understand the complexities of contemporary biomedical research can quickly find themselves suffering not simply from information overload but also from the much more difficult problem of “frame-of-reference deficiency disorders” (FORDDs). How does all this information fit together? If we know how the different pieces of the great puzzle of biology connect, even at a rudimentary level, it then becomes possible to assimilate new information much more effectively. However, accomplishing this can be an enormous challenge.

For example, within our own team of three closely interacting laboratories, we expect our colleagues, on any given day, to be able to contribute to discussions on the biology of cancer, the signaling pathways in cells, the development of the nervous system, the causes of stem cell differentiation, the role of oxi-dative status in controlling cell functions, the effects of viral infections on early development, the mechanisms by which environmental toxicants disrupt normal cell function, and a dozen other equally complex topics. And this is just from three laboratories! To weave biology together in a manner that enables doctors, nurses, pharmacologists and other members of the biomedical research and health care communities to integrate the vast amount of knowledge relevant to understanding illnesses and therapies is a daunting task.

Yet the laws governing evolution tell us that all the complexities of cells and tissues and organisms, in all life from bacteria to humans, are interconnected according to principles that are sufficiently constant to enable biological systems to develop and function in a highly predictable manner. In the great game of evolution, the foundations of the earliest life forms are the ground rules by which more complex organisms must also function. This is the reason why evolutionary studies not only provide the critical frame of reference without which biology is merely a collection of facts but also enable us to gain a deep understanding of a biological problem when we discover the shared solutions to that problem employed in widely divergent species to achieve the same ends.

One way to create the frame of reference that is needed to rapidly assimilate new biological principles is to read with great care some of the modern classics of cell biology, such as The Molecular Biology of the Cell or Molecular Cell Biology. If you also read several dozen other books on biology and several hundred selected research papers and reviews, and if you attend seminars by people who excel at explaining general principles (and make it a point to discuss such principles with your colleagues on a regular basis), then you are well on the way to building up this frame of reference.

But for those who don’t have the time required to digest the massive compendia of modern cellular biology and other numerous sources of value, Debra Niehoff’s The Language of Life provides a useful alternative entry point. In this well-written and fast-moving book, she manages to weave together bacteriology, small-molecule receptors, the basic biology of cancer, the study of eye development, the life of the red blood cell, molecular mechanisms of organismal development, diabetes, obesity, the birthing of contemporary neurobiology by Nobel Prize winner Santiago Ramon y Cajal, molecular studies on learning, and much more into an easy-to-understand compilation of some of the great themes in medically relevant biology.
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Throughout this book, the underlying theme is cellular communication and how it works. Cellular communication, of course, is the key to medicine. We can roughly divide cell biology into the fields of “cellular psychiatry” and “cellular sociology.”

Cellular psychiatry tells us about the innermost workings of the cell, whereas cellular sociology tells us about the community of cells and how they interact. It is this second realm that pertains to virtually all of the medications we currently use, as we try to communicate with cells to get them to do what we would like them to do.

It is true that disruption inside the cell (e.g., at the level of cellular psychiatry) can lead to breakdowns in the social structure of a tissue or an organism—similar to how an individual with a personality disorder in a position of power can disrupt the normal functioning of a society—but these secondary effects are still the result of abnormal communication between cells. A deranged cell that does not interact with other cells in the wrong ways would pose no more problem than a delusional general playing out his fantasies with imaginary soldiers instead of real ones.

Dr. Niehoff succeeds in weaving the many complex topics relevant to cellular communication together into a straightforward format, and every time she heads into deep water, she somehow finds a way to anchor the topic of interest to something readily comprehensible. buy cialis soft tabs

For instance, as a means of explaining the biology of cancer, she discusses the explosive growth of the deer population, which is turning a beautiful animal that is a joy to see into the major vector for Lyme disease and a considerable threat to the ecosystems on which these same deer depend. Their increase in numbers has taken them beyond the normal balance of nature, much as the cells of a cancer become distinct from the normal balance of the organism.

The author also does an excellent job of getting the many scientists interviewed in this book to explain the essence of their work in a manner that does not require a graduate degree to understand the topic. Thus, one could say that Dr. Niehoff has taken the theme of her book quite seriously at three levels—that of the communication between cells, that of the communication with the scientists whose work she describes, and that of the relationship between author and reader.

For those who are comfortable with scientific details, they will find Dr. Niehoff to be a ready companion in the conversation. It is a pleasure to read a text that gets it right in so many different areas of science. And to those who listen to the language of science as though it were spoken by intergalactic visitors, she is also an excellent companion. Whether using the overpopulation of deer as her metaphor or (one of my favorites) making axonal guidance molecules readily understandable with such metaphors as, “Contact between a misguided temporal axon and a posterior tectal cell is as toxic as two young children in the back seat of a car. ‘Mommm! She touched me!’ the axon whines,” as it retreats to a place where it no longer has contact with the offending signal. After reading that metaphor, you’ll probably find that looking at films of growing axons retreating from substances inimical to their continued extension will never be the same.
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One of the wonderful benefits of the author’s treatment of FORDDs is that new information becomes easier to integrate. Like putting together a complex puzzle, as you start to see the picture emerging, it becomes much easier to see where each new piece must go. For those who would benefit from seeing the puzzles of biology and medicine more clearly but who don’t have the option of undertaking a detailed course of study to achieve this goal, reading The Language of Life is a highly recommended mode of therapy for a syndrome that can be treated only by education. And for those who already see the puzzles, this book is still a pleasure to read, and it is likely to add more than a few pieces that will make biology’s grand picture that much clearer.

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