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  • Dr. Peffer

What can you do with a cell?

What can you do with a cell?

We don’t typically think about our cells. That adult humans have approximately 37.2 trillion cells, all in communication with one another like a big bee hive. We are a huge collection of cells! These cells each have jobs, too. We have hair cells and skin cells and heart cells and brain cells. Our cells work together so that we as an individual organism can survive. Our cells talk to each other to decide when we need more cells (notice that your hair or fingernails are growing? This is because cells are dividing!) or when we need cells taken away. Removal of cells happens through two processes: necrosis (which is when cells die because you tripped, fell, and accidentally killed a bunch of them) and apoptosis: when it’s time to get rid of cells, either because they’ve gone rouge (cancerous) or you don’t need them anymore (like when we’re a fetus and need to get rid of structures like the webbing in between our fingers and toes).

This article is in honor of our cells. We have trillions of them—but what can we do with just one?

1. Make another human.

This is what inspired this article. My husband and I were watching our son play outside and I commented on the power of what you can do with a single cell. My son came to be because my husband and I each donated a single cell. My husband donated a sperm cell and I donated an egg cell. These special cells, also known as gametes, are unique in that they can combine and form a new being. Once these cells combine and they form another cell, this new cell is called a zygote. The zygote is an entirely new being that is part me and part my husband. If you’re confused by the math (isn’t 1 cell + 1 cell = 2 cells?) gametes are special because they have half as much DNA as a regular cell. If you think about this in terms of money, each gamete is a 50 cent piece. Two fifty cent pieces adds up to $1. Same idea with our cells—add two gametes together to get one organism. The zygote divides to form new cells, these cells differentiate (the process when cells get “jobs” like being a heart cell or a brain cell) and eventually you get…a fully formed human!

2. Get screened for cancer

Remember when I said cells have jobs? And that all of our cells are in contact with each other? Sometimes a cell stops doing their job or listening (responding to cellular cues) to other cells. If a cell goes rogue, often times the body will try to get rid of rouge cells through apoptosis. Sometimes this doesn’t work either and rogue cells begin to grow out of control and spread. Cells growing out of control can lead to a mass of rogue cells (a tumor) and their spread throughout the body (metastasis) can lead death. Cancer starts with a single rogue cell. We can also prevent cancer by looking at single cells too. Have you ever had a mole removed and biopsied? A pap smear? In both of these tests, individual cells are removed and analyzed under a microscope to look for signs (like unstable DNA) to see if they’ve gone rogue (cancerous). For example, if the cells from a skin biopsy look suspicious, the doctor may call you to come back in to have the margins removed. This is when the surrounding cells are removed to make sure there are no rogue cells left. So a single cell abnormality can lead to cancer…or the identification of a single cell abnormality can be used to prevent getting cancer altogether.

3. Find out more about who you are biologically

Have you done genetic testing before? Either at home or in response to your doctor’s orders? Looking at our cells tells us a lot about who we are and our overall health. Each of your cells contains your entire genome (all of your DNA)!! A full copy of your DNA is about 6 feet (2 meters) long. IN A SINGLE CELL. Yikes! That’s a lot of information about you (and your family too—but that’s the subject of a different blog post). Genetic testing or DNA sequencing is uncovering what is in your DNA. For example, you can get a genetic test to see if you carry the gene variants associated with developing celiac disease. How do you get tested? You donate a few of your cells! What about our overall health? You doctor can order a complete blood count (CBC) to see how healthy you are…if you have any underlying infections or if you’re anemic. All done by looking at the cells in your body. A single cell has all of the information about you…and the cells of a specific type (like those in your blood) can tell us about our health.

So what can you do with a cell? You can make a new human. You can get…or prevent…cancer, and you can learn more about who you are and your overall health. Pretty neat for something that we’re made of and don’t think about too often!

There’s more on cells and cancer in Biology Everywhere. Make sure you are on my mailing list to stay up to date on the Biology Everywhere world and be first to know about upcoming promotions!

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