During his PhD research, Rupert Sheldrake ( The Science Delusion , 1-2) made an original discovery about plant cells: “dying cells play a major part in the regulation of plant growth, releasing the plant hormone auxin as they break down in the process of ‘programmed cell death.’ Inside the growing plants, new wood cells dissolve themselves as they die, leaving their cellulose walls as microscopic tubes through which water is conducted in stems, roots and veins of leaves. I discovered that auxin is produced as cells die, that dying cells stimulate more growth; more growth leads to more death, and hence to more growth.”

More generally, he hypothesized that cells grow old as they produce waste, but they can rejuvenate by dividing in such a way that the waste goes with one cell and the rest goes with the other. The waste cell is doomed, but the other cell is cleansed and renewed. In short, “the rejuvenation of stem cells through cell division depends no their sisters paying the price of mortality.”

If one were fancifully medieval, one would be tempted to think that cells are obeying the divine command, “Anyone who tries to preserve his life loses it, but whoever loses his life will save it.”

More on: Science

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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