Medical Microfiction: Apoptosis

Mother Knows Best

Mike mimicked his mother’s tremulous voice: “‘Be safe. Call me the moment you get there.’” She must think he’d jump off a cliff if she didn’t mention safety to him. He stomped the accelerator. And why did he have to phone her, anyway? The ritual was so superstitious. As if not calling would break some spell.

He seethed with teenage rebellion. So when he reached the theater, Mike conveniently “forgot” to call his mom. Minutes passed. He was halfway across the parking lot when he dissolved with a pop into a squirming heap of frogs, snails, and puppy tails.


Apoptosis: a cell suicide program. (Photo credit: Futurama)

Why do cells die? It sounds like an obvious question. All things die eventually. But why do cells die, if they haven’t been traumatized or diseased? The answer lies in apoptosis, which is the medical term for programmed cell death. Every cell in your body comes with a “use-by” date of sorts, a built-in suicide program. When the proper signal reaches the cell, it self-destructs, and its parts are recycled by your body.

Today’s story illustrates one way apoptosis might occur. For Mike, a phone call to his mom acts as a signal that it’s not Apoptosis Day for him. If he doesn’t make the call, the process is interrupted and he self-destructs into his raw materials.

And as we know, boys are made of frogs, snails and puppy tails.

Apoptosis sounds like an awfully violent process at first. I don’t relish the idea that my cells are exploding willy-nilly when I could still get a little more mileage out of ’em. But it’s better to think of it like leaves dropping off a tree. Sometimes you just need to shed cells when you’re done with them. In fact, that’s what the word literally means: “dropping off”, as of with leaves.

The effect of lack of programmed cell death (S...
The effect of lack of programmed cell death (Specifically apoptosis) on the toes of a human. A mutation caused the middle two toes to remain connected. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This regular suicide program serves an important function in the body. When cells age, mutations are more likely to occur, which would then be passed to the next generation of cells. In fact, when a mutation occurs that prevents a cell from undergoing apoptosis, it often leads to mutations, cancer, and autoimmune disease. The immortal cell starts multiplying like crazy, and will not respond to the body’s signals to stop.

Interestingly, chemotherapy works because it forces the target cells to self-destruct. It makes me think of ninjas breaking into a fortress at night to administer poison to the bad guys.

Moral of the story: listen to your mom.

Was/is your mom much like Mike’s? What’s the best advice you’ve gotten from your mother, or someone in your life who’s like a mother?

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