The Song of the Cell

by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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The Song of the Cell Summary

The Song of the Cell is a 2022 work of nonfiction about the science of cells by biologist and hematologist Siddhartha Mukherjee.

  • Mukherjee traces the history of our understanding of cells, beginning with their discovery by Robert Hooke and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the seventeenth century.
  • The book explains the structure and function of cells as the building blocks of all life and examines a range of advances in cellular biology and immunology.
  • The author concludes by discussing cancer cells and bone cells, respectively the most and least studied types of cell.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Cells are the basis of all life. Theodor Schwann, whose 1839 work Microscopical Researches into the Accordance in the Structure and Growth of Animals and Plants was influential in establishing the similarities between plant and animal cells, called them the “elementary particles of organisms.” The organism behaves as its cells do: when the cells survive, repair themselves, or die, the organism does the same. The author points out that medicine has already been transformed by advances in the scientific understanding of cellular biology and predicts still greater accomplishments based on therapeutic manipulation of cells in the future. A wide range of ailments, from depression to diabetes, can be ameliorated or eliminated in “new humans” who will be “rebuilt anew with modified cells.”

In the second half of the seventeenth century, Robert Hooke and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, working independently, used microscopes to observe cells, a word coined by Hooke from the Latin cella, meaning a little room. However, it was not until the nineteenth century that scientists began to investigate the origin, composition, and function of cells. In the 1820s, François-Vincent Raspail concluded that the chemical processes in cells create the conditions for tissues and organs to function. A decade later, Robert Remak noted that cells reproduce by dividing, though his research was largely ignored and had to be restated by Rudolf Virchow. Finally, in 1858, Virchow published Cellular Pathology, in which he propounded the theory that all dysfunction in organisms results from dysfunction in cells.

In 1876, the German scientist Robert Koch transferred anthrax from a cow to a mouse via a drop of blood. The observations of microbes from this experiment led him to formulate a new theory of disease based on the contamination of organisms by these single-celled bacteria. Meanwhile, Ignaz Semmelweis and Joseph Lister both noticed that doctors who did not wash their hands or sterilize their instruments transferred pathogens to their patients. A sterile environment in a hospital greatly reduced the mortality rate among patients. In the decades from 1940 to 1960, new research which combined biochemical methods with electron microscopy greatly increased scientists’ understanding of the cell’s structure. This eventually led to the development of medicines for conditions such as Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), which leads to blindness.

Cells divide by mitosis, for the purposes of repair, to heal a wound or produce an immune response, and meiosis, for the purposes of reproduction. The field of medicine which most closely replicates meiosis is in vitro fertilization (IVF). This is a controversial process, and the man who pioneered it, Landrum Shettles at Columbia University, was dismissed for failing to obtain proper authorization. Robert Edwards at Cambridge University was more careful, and the first IVF baby was born in 1978 using his techniques. Even more controversial than IVF is gene editing, attempting to alter certain characteristics of the embryo—for instance, making it resistant to a particular disease. He Jiankui, the scientist who pioneered this technique in China, was sentenced to three years in prison for breaching ethical guidelines.

As an embryo develops, its cells divide and multiply, eventually forming three layers. One of these, the ectoderm, will eventually become the skin, hair, teeth, and nails. The middle layer, the mesoderm, becomes muscle, bone, blood, and heart. The inner layer, the endoderm, forms internal organs such as lungs and intestines. It has taken millennia to achieve this understanding of embryo formation and a similarly long time to work out how cells circulate in the blood. The author, a hematologist by training, sees blood as a messenger which provides him with vital information for diagnosis and...

(This entire section contains 1190 words.)

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Platelets are minute fragments of cells which float in the blood and rush to the site of any injury, forming clots to stanch the bleeding. However, a combination of contemporary problems—obesity, diabetes, smoking, and hypertension—has led to the formation of plaques in arteries. When these plaques burst, the platelets sense a wound and form a clot inside the body, blocking the flow of blood to the heart and thereby causing a heart attack. Neutrophils, like platelets, swarm to sites of infection, where they ingest microbes as the first responders in the body’s innate immune response. This response is now augmented by the use of vaccines. A more recent contribution to immunology lies in the use of antibodies to produce medication.

T cells, named after the thymus, the organ where they mature, are able to discern whether a cell comes from the same organism as they do and whether it is healthy or infected. They reject tissue even from closely related subjects, causing, for instance, a skin graft between a brother and a sister to fail. When the immune cells fail to recognize their own organism, and turn against it, the result is horror autotoxicus, a term which embraces a range of fatal conditions. SARS-COV2 appears to cause such “immunological misfiring,” which is one of the reasons why it creates such havoc, particularly in subjects whose immune systems are already compromised.

In complex organs, cells behave like citizens, cooperating to allow the organ to function. The heart is the perfect example of this, with all its cells contracting in perfect unison to produce a regular heartbeat, as though the heart itself were a single cell. While the heart has a single function, the brain is infinitely complex. The author focuses on the structure of the brain rather than its function and particularly on the role of neurons in actively integrating information and glial cells in synaptic pruning. He also discusses Paul Greengard’s research on depression as a cellular disorder and on the possibilities of using chronic electrical stimulation as a remedy.

The pancreas produces insulin, a hormone which regulates the level of blood sugar. This makes it one of the organs of homeostasis in the body. Other such organs include the kidneys, which regulate the amount of salt, and the liver, which breaks down toxins such as alcohol. The brain, which regulates all these processes, is also an agent of homeostasis. While the hormones and the cells which make up these organs stabilize the body, it is repaired and regenerated by stem cells, which are able to produce other cells while replicating themselves. Stem cell research is controversial, largely because it has involved the use of human embryos, but offers the potential for a wide range of therapies.

The book concludes with the cells that are least studied and those that are most studied: bone cells and cancer cells. The author himself, having looked closely at many thousands of bone specimens, has been involved in uncovering some of the mysteries of the human skeleton, including how it continues to grow and repair itself in adulthood. He has also specialized in the study of cancer, about which much data has recently been discovered, particularly in the early years of the twenty-first century. However, the author cautions against confusing data with knowledge; so much remains mysterious about cancer cells that scientists are unaware of how much they do not know. He briefly discusses possibilities for the future: learning more about the interconnectedness of cells and using cellular therapies to emancipate people from disease.


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