Tuesday, 3 March 2015

My Tryst with the Cockroach

Roaches. I have been disgusted by them ever since my eyes could process those creepy crawlers. Just now I ran out of my hostel room's bathroom because one such specimen decided to set up camp there. All was well till then. I had just finished playing a good game of Dota and was readying myself for a night full of cell signaling when I felt like I had to have some Boost (really helps with the morale). So I grabbed my mug and headed in to wash it and suddenly I spot some scampering out of the corner of my eye. There he was. Resplendent in his brown exoskeleton, twitching his feelers a few feet from my left foot. I tiptoed towards my basin and proceeded to wash my mug, all the while watching out for an impending attack. Just as I was about to shut off the water supply, the animal decided that my foot needed some creeping over and charged. So did I - out of the bathroom. I quickly latched the door and then realized that my assailant could comfortably walk through the gateway under my door. So, just to be sure I wouldn't get jumped when I was out of the warzone and inside my self-styled sanctuary, I thrust my doormat under the door and moved it around in the hope of startling my adversary. I must've succeeded because I sighted no incoming artillery. Relieved, I trudged out of my room.
This ain't a one-off affair. I have been made fun of, taunted, etc. for my disgust (or rather "fear", as people who like to laugh at this aspect of me, put it). People have held live roaches by their feelers and waved them gleefully at my face as they watched me writhe in disgust and shoot off in the opposite direction while they derived sadistic pleasure. This is the case with rats as well. Rats however, tend to be as afraid of me as I am of them. I've never had a Mexican stand-off with a rat. Roaches, on the other hand, are a completely different story. Their fortitude and resilience to my taunts only makes me more secretly admiring of them. It isn't an overstatement to say they deserve to be the oldest life forms on the planet. They have, after all, been around since the "terrifying lizards" stomped earth.
Now, as I take refuge in my neighbour's room, I am formulating a plan to drive out the invader. I shall append an entry downstairs in the "room service" book of my hostel for a bathroom cleaning. Let's see where you end up now dear Mr. Roach! :P

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Can cancer even be cured?

You’ve all heard the common refrain, “Refrain from smoking lest you develop cancer”. These days, everything we do can be a cause for cancer – eating spicy food, using air conditioners, eating fried food, consuming liquor, passive smoking, being exposed to UV rays and a host of other things as well. And the worst part is, even if you remained a teetotaller, stayed indoors, ate only fruits and generally kept away from popularly categorized carcinogens, you still could develop cancer.

I recently read an article on endogenous retroviruses – something that we, as a race, have been carrying for a few million years now (even before the dawn of “mankind” as we know it). Basically these are sequences of DNA in our somatic and germ cells (read body cells and sperms/ova) which were once infectious retroviruses that plagued our primeval counterparts. For all those unaware of the mechanisms of infection of retroviruses – they are viruses that are able to integrate their genetic material into the genome of the host they infect (I will spare you the excruciating details! :P). So philosophically speaking, your children are part you, part your spouse and part virus. Now imagine this process extrapolated to a million plus years. Throw in some natural selection and other evolutionary pressures and we have now, upto 8% of our DNA as viral DNA.

How can we be sure that the DNA was from viruses and not from our parents? Studies have been conducted on the proteins that are transcribed by these long stretches of DNA that generally do not code for anything in our bodies in vivo and it was found that we exhibit genotypes (but not phenotypes, mostly) for viral proteins. Amazing? Scary? Unbelievable? It gets worse. These stretches of viral DNA are able to jump from one location to another within the DNA sequence itself. They seem to be “searching for a way out” of the evolutionary conundrum. Their integration into the host genome wasn’t meant to last so many generations of DNA replication over so many years. Their parasitic behaviour forces them to look for a way out of this conundrum – they need to be able to hijack the host’s cell machinery and make the cell transcribe their proteins. Add to this the fact that most of our cells are just waiting for an excuse to become neoplastic (cancerous). What’s stopping them is some segments of your DNA called “tumour suppressor genes”.

Imagine now that a retrovirus decides to replace this gene or disrupt it in the process of jumping around your DNA. I don’t need to spell it out for you to develop a prognosis (once that happens). And the probability of this occurrence isn’t zero.