How fast does death travel on a cellular level?

The speed of death isn't as instantaneous as you may think.

Death! It happens to all of us. To some of us, it happens more than once. And scientists at Stanford University have now been able to figure out just how fast it happens on a cellular level. 


In order to study this, researchers took cytoplasm from frog eggs and placed it in a tube. The cytoplasm was picked as its full of proteins, which were visible as bright green globs. The researchers then placed an extract from a cell that had recently undergone programmed cell death at the far end of the tube and measured how quickly it spread. The cells basically self-destructed, started by a "trigger wave" which then spread at roughly at 2mm an hour or 30 micro-centimeters a minute

As death spread, the green globs died out. Interestingly, according to New Scientist, the self-destruction part occurred much faster than the extract itself moved. 

Death moving a lot faster than 2mm an hour in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, 1991, Orion Pictures. 

Programmed cell death is a little bit more complex than what you might think of as "instant death", i.e. thinking of life like a light-switch, and it happens way more often than you might think. Look at your hands and you're actually looking at the result of programmed cell death that happened long ago in the womb. Towards the end of the first trimester, the cells that hold the hand together separate—otherwise, we'd be web-handed. It can also occur in cancer

I'll fully admit I'm massively paraphrasing this whole study for brevity—feel free to read the full study here and a particularly dry Wikipedia page on cell death here

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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.