Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Mighty Mitochondria

When Star Wars / George Lucas started to explain the force by inventing the back story of the Midi Chlorians, a microscopic life form that is in symbiosis with all life, many of my friends in the glamourous and rewarding visual effects industry thought it was the stupidist thing they had ever heard. Which is impressive, given the number of stupid things they have heard or have said in their line of business.

One of the leads at ILM for The Phantom Menace told me that when he read the script in preproduction that he thought the idea was so wacky that it had to have been deliberately created and added to the script as part of the LucasArts technique to help identify who leaked the script should the script get leaked. (People who were allowed to read the script for the Phantom Premise, I mean the Phantom Menace, before the movie came out were given carefully modified scripts with unique plot points so that any leaks, which are common with such movies, could be traced.  They kept an access list of who read which version of the script and could narrow down the possible suspects).  My friend thought that the idea of the Midi Chlorians was so obviously a bad idea that it could not possibly be a part of the real script.

Well I don't think it was or is stupid. I thought it was obvious that "George" was making a reference to the Mighty Mitochondria, which are really, really important and in fact is in ancient symbiosis with all life, or at least all multi-cellular life.

Pretty much any animal or plant that has more than one cell is called Eukarotic, and it consists of cells with a nucleus and a lot of these little buggers, the mighty mitochondria, inside. These mitochondria have an eerie resemblence to bacteria, and in fact they probably were bacteria once. Not only that, but according to one theory they are probably or were probably methanogens and I will let you look up why that is funny.  (OK, I will tell you.  Methanogens are the anaerobic bacteria in cows and in swamps that generate methane, the active ingredient in flatulence and they are our ancestors, some think. )

You simply can not get more important than the Mighty Mitochondria: they power our cells, they are probably very much involved in aging, and the more you know the more interesting they are. Of course, since I am concerned about the mitochondria, perhaps even worried about them, I am probably a mitochondriac.

But if you do not know what I am talking about, and/or if you have not read Nick Lane's fabulous book "Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life", you should do so at once. You can get started online on by searching inside the book, but you should really order your own copy. The anti-oxident theory of aging comes from the Mitochondria and by reading this book you can understand why merely taking more anti-oxidents is not going to work. It will be your first step into a larger world, as Obi Wan would say, only in this case into a smaller world.

Here are some stained mitochondria that I found on the Internet.

It must be hard to make attractive pictures of devolved bacteria / pond scum, don't you think?

The book is at:

The Jedi explain the Midi Chorlians here:

The Wikipedia page is here.

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