One way I grow in my appreciation of who God is, is by regularly reading some good science books and articles. After all, theologians have taught for centuries that we can catch glimpses of our Divine Creator by observing, interacting with, and pondering the natural world. Some theologians went so far as to say: “Creation is our first scriptures.” That’s why, from time to time, I write about “science things” on this blog. Today’s topic is the cell. I got much of the information here from the book, What Is Life? by Paul Nurse, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I also culled a few other sources that my curiosity led me to. Here are some simple yet fascinating facts about the cell.
1. Paul Nurse calls the cell “biology’s atom.” That’s because everything that is alive is either a cell or is made up of cells. The word cell comes from the Latin cella meaning a small room or a compartment.
2. Cells can be teeny weeny or big. If certain single-cell bacteria could line up “shoulder to shoulder” (figuratively speaking, of course), then 3,000 of them would measure one-millimeter across. That’s about the thickness of your credit card! But cells can be big too. The next time you have an egg for breakfast, remember that the entire yolk is a single cell! In the human body, the largest cell is the female ovum or egg (which is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence) while one of the smallest cells is the head of a sperm. It is good to recall that every single human being was once a single cell—at the moment of conception.
3. Microbes are single-cell organisms. They are the most numerous life forms on Earth. They live in every environment from high atmospheres to the depths of the Earth’s crust. Without them, life would come to a halt. The average adult human body has roughly 30 trillion human cells. For every one of these cells we have at least one microbial cell. Paul Nurse says: “You—and every other human being—are not an isolated, individual entity, but a huge and constantly changing colony made up of human and non-human cells.” These microbial cells live on us and in us, affecting such things as how we digest our food or fight off disease. For a typical human, the total weight of these cells in and on you is between 3-5 pounds! (Next time the nurse weighs me in the doctor’s office, I’m going to say, “Substract 5 pounds please. That’s how much my microbial cells weigh—and they are NOT me!)
4. I was wondering how the coronavirus fit into all of this. This information is from Eric Mendalhall, professor of biological sciences at University of Alabama, Hunstville. A virus is an infectant agent consisting of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat. But a virus is not alive since it cannot perform the functions ordinarily attributed to living things. For example, a virus cannot multiply on its own. It requires a living host cell to begin to multiply. One virus is the coronavirus, a virus that usually infects mammals and birds. Six such viruses were identified before COVID-19—for example, SARS and MERS. But COVID-19 is by far the most infectious and most deadly of the known coronaviruses. Says Mandalhall, “Viruses can’t spread unless people help them to spread. If you don’t pass it on, the virus hits a dead end in its pseudo-life.” We all know the primary ways people can prevent passing the virus on. The main way is by getting vaccinated. Other ways to prevent the passing on of the virus is, of course, wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and not gathering in groups especially indoors. In short, COVID-19 needs one of your living cells to spread. (PS: In the 1918 flu pandemic, there was no vaccine against the flu virus. In fact, science back then didn’t even know the flu was caused by a virus! Also, COVID-19 is more infectious and causes more serious illnesses than the 1918 virus.)
5. The human brain has 80 billion cells. The human body has about 200 different kinds of cells—such as blood cells, bone cells, skin cells, nerve cells, fat cells, and so forth. Cells can live for a few days (like those in your digestive tract) or for a full year (like those in your pancreas.)
6. Each cell in your body contains your unique DNA, your specific genetic information necessary for directing cell activity. If your strand of DNA was stretched out it would be 6-8 feet long… Cells are constantly being born and dying. Except for your brain cells, 50,000,000 of the cells in your body will have died and been replaced with others—just during the time it took you to read this last sentence!
When you ponder the cell, what does it reveal to you about our Creator God? You might want to sit with that question for a bit. I will offer you just a few of my thoughts here:
What brilliance… what ingenuity… what power… what creativity… what imagination… what wisdom… what love God must possess… God is an artist… an engineer… a lover… the father, the mother of all living things… How alike we humans are on the cellular level. In other words, the deeper we go into each other, the more our oneness is apparent… At the same time, how unique every single human being is. Our DNA is our ID, our unique “name”… God is a lover of uniqueness… a promoter of diversity… the giver of all life. It seems fitting to close with this short prayer based on Psalm 139.
Loving Creator, Thank you, Thank you… for the creation of the cell… and for all the cells that make every living thing on Planet Earth. I thank you for the trillions of cells that form me. And thank you for the strand of DNA in every one of my cells that makes me, me. With the psalmist I pray: “You formed my inmost being… you knit me together in my mother’s womb… I praise you that I am so beautifully and wonderfully made.” Help me to treasure my unique and precious gift of life. Give me a greater reverence for all of life: the unborn, the young, the middle-aged, the elderly, the dying, the refugee, the bullied, the imprisoned. May I reverence birds and bees, otters and orcas, oak trees and blueberry bushes. And may I use my gift of life to serve you joyfully, my Beloved One, and my sisters and brothers all the days of my life. Amen.
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PS: I will be giving a virtual retreat entitled “Spirituality: The Call to Holiness and Wholeness” Oct. 29-30 (Friday evening and Saturday). I’ve posted more information about this on this page on the right. (Just scroll up to read it.) Check there too for information on an Advent afternoon of reflection (virtual/in person) on Nov. 30 at the Franciscan Center in Tampa, FL. Thank you!
The video is “An Ode to Earth.” It’s labeled “A short tribute to earth and to the people who inhabit it.” The song, by Christopher Tin, is “Baba Yetu,” which is the Our Father in Swahili. It is performed here by the Soweto Gospel Choir. How appropriate for us to sing the Our Father after reflecting on the cell! The movie clips are from the BBC productions “Blue Planet” and “Planet Earth.”
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