Tag Archives: keratinocytes

Medical Microfiction: Keratinocytes

The Little Dutch Girl

“We’ll draw straws. Long straws stay. Short fixes the hull.”

“Sounds fair.”

Olga proffered a fistful of sticks to her crewmates. Hal, Zarina, and Ken drew one apiece. There was a sharp intake of breath as they opened their palms.

Olga grimaced. “Guess it’s me. Let’s roll. We’re losing oxygen.” She stepped over the airlock threshold. She scanned the area and gasped in surprise. “Wait. Where are the tools? Where’s my space suit?”

“Sorry, Olga,” said Zarina.

The airlock whooshed shut.

Hal shut his eyes as Olga’s body, distorted by the vacuum of space, plugged the breach in the hull.

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ISS science officer and flight engineer, astro...
When you go outside the airlock, don’t forget your space suit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I were a cell in the human body, I think one of the most miserable work environments would be the epidermis, also known as your skin. Your skin’s your body’s biggest organ, and one of the most important ones. It keeps the bad stuff out and the good stuff in and represents the boundary between the body and the environment.

Given that important role, it’s still a raw deal to be a keratinocyte, the type of cell that makes up 95% of the epidermis. Keratinocytes are born deep in the basal layer (the stratum basale) of the skin. There they spend a short childhood multiplying before they’re shoved upwards toward the surface of the skin. As they rise in rank, they’re cut off from the nourishing blood supply found in the deeper layers. Eventually they die off and are packed full of keratin, which hardens them and makes them waterproof. By the time they reach the surface of your skin, their dead bodies form a tough, waterproof wall that keeps all the living cells in your body protected from the outside world.

Keratinocytes are born to die. It’s a heroic deed, yes, but still a raw deal. Much like being thrown out of the airlock to plug the breach in the hull.

In case you’re not familiar with it, the title and inspiration for this story comes from an American folk tale called The Little Dutch Boy. In this story, a young boy becomes a hero by using his finger to plug a leak in a dike. Of course, the big difference between the boy of this story and keratinocytes is that the boy got to choose his fate!