Communing with Cells
Some people have religious experiences by praying to the heavens, but I have had comparable experiences communing with microscopic cells.
A long time ago when I was a graduate student, I worked on a project that was not unlike those astronomy ventures that radio messages out into the universe, “Hello from Earth. Is there anybody out there?”… not necessarily expecting a reply. But for my project, I sent tiny peptide messages, into a microcosm, a tiny glob of nerve cells. With a micro-electrode, I would eavesdrop on a different cell each day. Did you get the message? Did you get the message? … not necessarily expecting a reply. The work was exacting: pulling and filling micro-electrodes, dissecting a tiny nerve ganglion from a sea slug, pinning it down just so under the microscope, inserting the micro-electrode with just the right pressure, then listening to the chatter of lively electrical activity in the cells. The cells and I spent the day in darkness because they were sensitive to light. I would become so absorbed in the tiny World of the right abdominal ganglion, that I often found myself reluctant to discard the cells at the end of the day, knowing how very alive they still were, how much the cells still had left to say.
One August, I was listening to a cell called R15 when suddenly, a reply came. Watching the strip chart of electrical activity, my heart began to pound as the boringly even, regular signal suddenly began to change: “Hello out there to the person behind the microscope. I received your message and I have begun my response.” For several hours the change in electrical activity continued as I watched enraptured. The next morning I arrived early to show my lab chief the strip charts. Perhaps this was nothing new? Perhaps he forgot to tell me that this happens all the time? I immediately knew from the look on his face that indeed this was significant.
For the next eight months I continued my conversations with R15, painstakingly watching and measuring responses. During this time I began receiving messages from another cell, a cell within my own body. An oocyte transformed and was rapidly dividing and sending out messages — messages built with the same vocabulary as R15’s messages, electrical signals, hormones, neuropeptides. These messages traveled through my body inducing hunger, weariness, queasiness. I ruined an experiment the day I verified the meaning of the messages. Hand trembling with excitement, I spilled blue dye all over my cells, then went to confess to my lab chief my expensive mistake and that I was pregnant. Sarah and my master’s thesis were both delivered the following June.
Several years later I re-experienced my epiphany while reading a Scientific American article. I had heard that my lab might be mentioned in a review article on the cellular basis of learning. What an ego-trip! My name would not be mentioned, but I would feel the pride of being a tiny contributor to an enormously important topic. I read the introduction, then quickly scanned the article for a mention of R15. I flipped the page and my heart began to race – there in the middle of the article was a reproduction of a strip chart recording of electrical activity from R15. Not just any R15 message; I would recognize this particular message anywhere. It was my burning bush, my own personal message. To me it read:
“August 15, 1974
To: Sandra Simon
Room 758 HSW
University of California, San Francisco
From: Aplysia Californica, Right Abdominal Ganglion, Cell R15
Regarding: Your neurohormone message sent 12 minutes ago
Letting you know that I received your message and have begun my response.
And making sure you believe it — life, at all levels, is awesome!”
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