Life is a little electric currentMae-Wan Ho
Few years ago I did a presentation about the concept of brain death. At the end of the session a member in the audience asked me “what is the time of death?” She wanted to know the time that should be documented as the time of death in a person who is brain dead but has a beating heart. In a philosophical mood, I answered – Time of death is when the romance is gone.
What does being alive means? A leaf is alive when it is part of a plant and the moment it is plucked it belongs to the realm of death. What happens at the time of death? What are the features that differentiates a living being from a non living thing?
The genetic material and the complex molecules that form the three dimensional structure of a living being do not define life. DNA is a wonderful aperiodic polymer but still it is not alive by itself. Life is not something that is static, it is a phenomenon characterized by the flow of energy and it’s transformation. Like a burning candle, the phenomenon called life burns energy continuously and undergoes gradual predestined transformation in it’s structure from birth to death. Death begins once this flow of energy stops. Average human body even in a state of rest burns approximately 100 joules of energy per second to maintain life. It is equivalent to the energy consumed by a 100 watt light bulb. Every cell in the body actively ‘lives’ by flowing energy through it. Some cells requires high energy to remain alive(brain cell) and the process of death begins seconds after termination of blood or energy flow.
Hence, an organism that is ‘alive’ is characterized by two properties. One is the complex and an unique 3 dimensional structure and second is the flow of energy. The structure of the organism forms the path for the energy flow and reciprocally this flow maintains the integrity of the structure. The function of the cell, organ or the organism is delivered by this delicate interdependence of structure and energy flow. This is the most important feature that distinguishes life from lifeless things (Well, hurricane has a structure and enormous amount of energy flows through it). The energy cost is paid to maintain a structure that would otherwise burst open due to the disequilibrium in the chemical and electrical potential between the inside and the outside of the cell. It is this disequilibrium when maintained at a steady state creates all functions of life possible. That is why the body once it loses its capacity to burn energy, the disequilibrium dissipates, the complex structure undergoes gradual spontaneous decay and decomposes to it’s individual elements. Hence death is also a process that begins once the flow of life stops. It is the process of decomposition of the structure to its elements. A diamond has an attractive structure but it does not flow energy nor changes its structure over time. It remains the same over a great period of time. It has a timeless beauty and a lifeless body. An aircraft has millions of parts in its structure and it also has a path to flow energy. However the moment electricity or the flow of energy is stopped it does not undergo spontaneous structural disassembly. It does not die. Rather it just shuts down and it can be turned back on. Its structural integrity is not maintained by the energy flow but it is held together by mechanical nuts and bolts. I would not call it ‘alive’ if it cannot die the way life dies.
If our body did not depend so much on the continuous energy flow for maintenance of its structure then we can also just shut when the heart is stopped and come back to life once it pumps again. Unfortunately the integrity of our structure depends on continuous energy flow and not intermittent current. Our brain starts spontaneous disassembly within seconds and in few minutes it is irreversibly damaged and with that the ‘self’ vaporizes. It is impossible to put back all the elements into the same exact order to regain that individual. If the heart starts back after few minutes then probably the skin, muscle and bones are still alive but the brain is dead.
The same happens to the leaf that we plucked out in the second paragraph. The act of plucking stops the flow of energy and initiates the process of death. The leaf from that moment undergoes gradual spontaneous disintegration. If an insect eats the dying leaf then it’s elements will be incorporated into the structure of another thing that still has the capacity to flow energy i.e still ‘alive’.
Out, out, brief candle!Macbeth
Biothermodynamics is the study of energy flow in a living being. Our understanding of states of health and disease is strongly influenced by our obsession with structure. We define disease primarily by ‘structural injury’ point of view. The injury could be caused by bacteria, fall, fire, lack of oxygen, immunity, cancer or other things. The structural injury is further described based on how it looks on the scan, under the microscope, its molecular pattern or the functional impairment of the cell/organ. But we have left behind a key aspect of life – The flow of energy.
1. Can our understanding regarding the direction and the quantity of energy flow through a cell and it’s supporting structure improve our knowledge regarding health and disease of an organ?
2. Can we manipulate the energy flow and sustain the life of a cell or an individual even when there is no blood flow?
3. Can manipulation of flow of energy aid in the healing and recovery? In other words, can understanding of this key aspect of life give a whole different dimension to medical therapeutics – How a disease is diagnosed and treated.
The reason for a great majority of diseases or structural injuries in human body is unknown and it is called as ‘idiopathic’. Deeper insight into how the cell and it’s interstium handles energy to maintain their stability could help us to do better in disease management.