Survival of the Sickest Pt. I

What did you think about the reading? 

Despite being non-fiction and informational, Survival of the Sickest was filled with an almost suspense-like quality. The author would pose an interesting topic (such as the anecdote of the incredibly fit Aran Gordon in the beginning of chapter one) that would grab the reader’s attention immediately. In order to explain the intriguing topic, Dr. Moalem would pose other questions and go in depth through other subjects before, after twenty pages, he would finally decipher the original matter. And while explaining these subject matters and their back stories, the author wrote several sentences and phrases that were memorable for their simplicity and accuracy. For example, his reason as to why we have diseases and drugs that will kill us in forty years is clear: “It’s the only thing that will stop you from dying tomorrow” (4). Throughout the novel, Dr. Moalem seeks to explain how and why diseases got passed through our gene pool even though they may seem only harmful at the present time. 

What did you learn?

Many food and beverages today are fortified with added nutrients. Of course, this seem like it can only be beneficial: If having 12 mg of iron a day is good, then having 40 mg of iron must be great! So, many of us may be ingesting more than our recommended value of nutrients each day with the intention of being healthy. However, as Dr. Moalem points out in his novel, too much of anything (good or bad), will always have negative consequences. As for too much iron, this mineral is a magnet for many illnesses. Cancer, bacteria, parasites, and protozoa thrive on iron, for example. If we load up our system with iron then we may just be feeding the flame that might eventually consume us. However, in a certain disease called hemochromatosis, the body always has excess levels of iron in the blood. This iron build-up can eventually damage the invalid’s organs and physical difficulty. The reason as to why the gene for this disease got passed down is because it does have some benefits. People with hemochromatosis have less iron in their macrophages (a type of white blood cell that attacks foreign bodies) and, because of this, are actually less prone to having serious infections. And at a time like the Black Plague, this trait would be extremely advantageous. In addition to hemochromatosis, cystic fibrosis (the second most common genetic disease in Europeans [second to hemochromatosis]) carriers have some protection from tuberculosis, an extremely deadly disease that “caused 20% of all deaths in Europe between 1600 and 1900” (21). 

In addition to discussing hemochromatosis, Dr. Moalem also talks about diabetes and the possible advantages it could have caused many years ago. The way that diabetes could give people an advantage in survival was found in the most unlikely of places- The ice age. Because of the increased amount of sugar in the blood of diabetics and increased amount of urination (resulting in less water in the body), people with diabetes have a greater inclination for the cold. Here’s how it works: Because of the high concentration of blood sugar, whatever water that is in the blood stream now has a lower freezing point and therefore, has a protection against freezing temperatures. This phenomenon is found not only in humans but in grapes and wood frogs as well! So during ice ages, such as the Younger Dryas, diabetics may have actually possessed a survival advantage in their ability to manage the cold weather. Other remarkable evidence for this theory is that descendants from places that experienced an ice age many years ago have a  greater disposition towards diseases similar to diabetes (diseases where the blood sugar is high and there is immense discharge of water). Today, however, with many diabetics getting barely any exposure to the cold, there is no use for their high concentrations of blood-sugar and the disease proves to be much more harmful than helpful. 

What questions do you still have?

 To further this research on freezing, I am curious to know if we ever will be able to freeze human organs for later use in transplants. This idea was addressed in the book as being currently impossible but a very good idea. If we are ever able to attain this goal, numerous lives could be saved each year by extending the life of donated organs. Of course, once we reach this goal the next step would be to freeze, and later bring back, an entire person. This next step would raise ethical debates, I’m sure, and could result in extremely negative outcomes. However, despite the negative outcomes it might later cause, I believe the the more immediate advantage of prolonging the life of donated organs is worth it. Furthermore, I would like to know how we could do this without permanently damaging the body parts. 

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4 thoughts on “Survival of the Sickest Pt. I

  1. I was also fascinated by the idea that we could use research from the wood frogs to possibly preserve human organs. If this worked, many human lives would be saved since organs would be readily available. Additionally, I thought it was very interesting how hemochromatosis was brought about in the European population and the survival advantages it gave them in the Black Death pandemic.

    1. Yes- the preservation of human organs is a very interesting idea! Just think of all the lives that could be saved and possibly elongated! However, with every good thing there is bound to be a negative side-effect. What if a criminal or corrupt dictator were to elongate their life? Could they ever become nearly unstoppable if they just continued prolonging their life? Even so, I think that being able to conserve organs for necessary transplants is a much needed advance in medicine.
      And yes- I totally agree! I really enjoyed learning how diseases that seem to have only negative side-effects in today’s world were actually an advantage in the earth that existed many years ago. It’s unbelievable how life works like that! Adding to this fascinating event is that in a certain amount of years, these diseases could become advantageous once again when/if the environment changes.

  2. I think everyone who read the book is absolutely intrigued by the wood frog. The way it can natural freeze itself is amazing! Your thoughts on preserving human organs and the positive and negative effects are absolutely correct. It may attract all sorts of ethical issues later on but for the current situation of people dying because organs don’t arrive in time is the most important and pressing matter.

    1. Yes, I definitely agree- the wood frog is an amazing creature. I think that part of the reason why everyone finds it so amazing are the details the author gave on the frog’s freezing act: There is no heartbeat, no brain activity, and no breathing for the entire winter! This frog and it’s amazing ability has been way overlooked!
      And as far as the frozen organs, I was curious about transplant statistics. After a quick research, I found that, according to The Hastings Center (a research institution for bioethics), about a dozen people die each day because of a lack of organs for transplant (and 100,000 people are on waiting lists for organs). If organs could be frozen, just think of how many of those lives could be saved! Not only that, but our lives could possibly be elongated immensely by organ transplants. Then this could bring us back to the question: Is it right? A criminal or a destructive dictator could live on for far longer and cause much more damage than they could naturally. Just things to think about…
      Sorry this reply was so long…

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