Mutant Worms and Jesus Christ
What do they have in common? Both have the capability of forcing us reject our most cherished beliefs and adopt new ones… and do it suddenly.
In spite of this substantial commonality, there is a major difference. Jesus Christ has nothing to do with scientific inquiry, but mutant worms have everything to do with it. I’ll explain shortly.
But first, I believe religious conversion is usually a sudden transformation. Biblical Saul is struck down on the way to Damascus and converts, on the spot, to become Paul, the Christian guru. Geneticist, Francis Collins leads an unfulfilled life until he comes upon three frozen waterfalls on a winter hike. He suddenly finds Christ. The lone survivor of a plane crash which kills 157 other passengers is convinced her God is merciful and has saved her.
On the other hand, de-conversions, such as mine during my teenage years, and that of Dan Barker, renowned preacher/musician of FFRF fame, come slowly after much disillusion with religion and serious thoughts about impossible events. Such de-conversions are similar to heating water until it reaches 212° F. Then zap, the first bubbles predictably appear… or zap, you realize you no longer believe in magic.
Giving up belief in God was easy, at least for me. But giving up a long established scientific theory should be difficult. After all, scientific studies and published papers can’t be wrong, or can they? Close to forty percent of scientific papers are eventually repudiated by continuing peer review and ongoing research. Unfortunately, most people are unable to keep abreast of the corrections and continue to believe discredited scientific claims long after they have been disproven. How many years did it take to finally expose Piltdown Man as a fraud? Skull fragments were discovered and attributed to him in 1911. But, my high-school biology book, published in 1950, still identified Piltdown man as an early human. It took several more years to strike this fraud from biology books.
But, in the case of mutant worms and the research done on them, there is little doubt. All the evidence is not yet in, but enough was to convince me that the long accepted anti-oxidant/free radical theory needed updating. An article in Scientific American magazine, Feb. 2013 about mutant worms did the trick. As a long time believer in free radicals and a heavy user of anti-oxidant pills, as are 52% of Americans, my conversion was surprising fast and easy. Facts, data, peer review, and replication of study results could not be ignored. The Scientific American article hit me between the eyes and knocked me for a loop.
Free radicals, once a deadly enemy, might be beneficial to our health? Wow! Anti-oxidants, once an all purpose fountain of youth cure all, might actually shorten our lives? Wow! Yes, evidence was piling up and so I converted on the spot, as fast as Saul transformed into Paul.
But before you convert in my footsteps you, no doubt, need the facts and the whole story, as described in SA, “The Myth of Anti/oxidants.” by science writer Melinda Wenner Moyer. The following is a summary of the latest information.
It all started with mutant worms. (A great beginning sentence for a science fiction novel.) Researchers Arlan Richardson and David Gem created a mutant line of worms chock full of free radicals which should have ended their lives prematurely. Interpreting his data, Richardson said,”… I watched those goddamn life span curves, and there was not an inch of difference between them.” The anti-oxidant worms in question didn’t die like they were expected to. They were jammed full of free radicals but the data showed they lived as long as normal worms. They should have died young, but did not. What happened?
Mouse studies from all over the world confirmed the revolutionary new data. Free radicals instead of being dangerous seemed to be useful and healthy. They ignited intrinsic defense mechanisms that keep our bodies in tip-top shape until we die healthy in old age.
Vitamin C, in spite of a humongous amount of research done on it by Linus Pauling, has turned out to have no effect on human longevity, and some people who take certain anti-oxidant supplements are actually more likely to develop life-threatening illnesses, such as lung cancer and heart disease.
Studies by Seigfried Hekimi and Wen Yang certified that a certain number of free radicals stimulate an organisms internal repair mechanisms to get to work. In short, the mutant worms lived longer than the normal worms. What’s more, when researchers fed anti-oxidants to the mutant worms, their longevity advantage disappeared. Anti oxidants seemed to actually have deleterious effects. Other scientist confirmed it, and over time other counter-intuitive results poured in.
Mutant worms not treated with anti-oxidants lived longer than those that were.
Think about it: In Victorian times, new-borns who were hidden away from dirt, germs, and exposure to other children in shroud-covered cribs never developed effective immune systems and suffered with poor health as adolescents and adults. Similarly, the mutant worms that were loaded with anti-oxidants were hindered in their normal development, and did not develop their natural defense systems. They did not live a long as they might have. Oxidants actually served a useful purpose, as did those nasty Victorian germs.
Rachelle Buffenstein was conducting another confounding experiment in a near-by research laboratory. Mole rats, the longest living rodents (life spans of 25 to 30 years) were naturally loaded with oxidants and had few anti-oxidants. Nevertheless, they lived eight times longer than other equivalently sized mice, until they died in relatively good health at a very old age. The oxidants appeared to be beneficial; the anti-oxidants were not important.
Here are some Interesting research results: 1) levels of free-radical molecules circulating in animal bodies and the amount of oxidative damage that occurred had no bearing on how long they lived. 2) Oxidants are valuable because they turn on genes that repair cellular damage. 3) Worms exposed to herbicides acquired oxidants and subsequently lived 58% longer than normal worms. 4) Worms engineered to have high levels of oxidants live as long as normal worms unless they are given antioxidants. 6) Free radicals are a consequence of age related damage, not a cause of it. 7) Certain anti oxidants are linked to increased risk of death, sometimes up to 16%.
The above findings are nothing short of heretical. High–energy oxidant molecules may not be harmful; they actually may be useful and healthy. So why swallow so many anti-oxidant pills? Why load up on Vt. C, Vt. E and beta-carotene? There are only two possible reasons. 1) If you are undernourished and deficient in certain vitamins and minerals you may need supplements. 2) By buying useless large doses of ineffective anti-oxidants, you are making someone very rich.
Research is continuing. The animal body is complicated and variable. What works for one animal may not apply to all animals. Free radicals may create damage to some organs and not to others. Anti-oxidants may have some positive effects and some harmful effects.
As in religious beliefs, one may find enough reason to support more than one viewpoint. Humans are prone to find evidence that supports their current point of view and likely to reject evidence that contradicts their current point of view. If you are an average person you will stick with faith and tradition, and reject ever changing science. Too bad.