In the post ‘From Dinosaurs to Astronauts, Long-Live the Bone Cells’ I shared my entry to Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014. The following post includes some of my thoughts on why I didn’t win (or make the short-list)*.
The article is dry. It’s as dry as the air that forced our ancestral vertebrates to adapt in the way that I was trying to describe. Unfortunately in writing that does not have quite the same catalytic effect. Where in biology this bred a thriving and successful creature that crawled from the sea and onto land, in the world of writing it meant my article floundered on the shore as I desperately tried to resuscitate it with mouth to mouth by spewing more and more words into it. It was an elocutionary dead end.
I wrote this piece in a weekend, with thoughtful and helpful feedback from peers and stranger alike. It is so much better than it was – but it is not as good as it should have been. This subject deserves more. It should have had an article devoted to it that was overflowing with enthusiasm, with emotion. On reading my words you should have known my expression when I first explained this to others. You should have known the excited voice and animated hands. This article should have been the equivalent of me shaking you by the shoulders, so that you could not fail to see that my paradigm had shifted upon learning these things. And that yours would too. But I neglected to find the story. The story that stares you in the face: your skeleton is a organ.
Just stop and think about that for a moment. The scaffolding inside your body built of bones that we mostly think of as responsible for ensuring we are not the blobfish on the floor of life, is an organ. It can communicate. It can effect change. In the long run (and what is life if not a very long, exhausting, and yet exhilarating run) is as important as your heart or brain or lungs. And we have been neglecting it. In both our advancement of understanding as a species and in our attempts to understand our own species, we have neglected it.
We’ve been blinkered by our inability to imagine that such a thing could be possible. Consider, as we have only just learned this fact, how far behind our understanding of the skeleton is compared to the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. We treated the skeleton as an aspect of anatomy that was for all intensive purposes sussed. For so long we looked at the macroscopic, attempting to remedy the errors of antiquity. But even with the arrival of the microscopic, we failed to see how it could be so important. And it is. Important. This skeleton is built of bones that we inherently imagine as white and hard and representative of death, when they are pink and flexible and full of life. The skeleton is a thriving part of a greater system. And all of this is made possible by cells that we can barely comprehend: osteocytes.
We have studied our evolution on a grand scale. But we have forgotten about the small scale. And what are we if not just a grand collection of very small things?
When I began my university education, which was not as long ago as all that, I was taught that these cells were merely place-holders. Masses of motionless mineralised tissues devoid of all but the most basic functions. Now osteoblasts and osteoclasts, that was where the power within the bones lay. With their obvious functions, they are the show-offs of the skeletal-cellular world. But we were mislead. They are merely the scenes that we can see and are in fact at the beck and call of the osteocytes, at least some of the time. The director of it all.
If you were an osteoblast or osteoclast, these osteocytes might seem a thing of legend. Although they die (and their deaths are mightily important to this message) they live for decades, appearing immortal in comparison to the small number of days or weeks you might survive. A cell that spans the generations… a cell that is capable of surviving the entire generation of their vertebrate host. It’s not just the cells in our brains that are with us from birth to death – it’s the cells in our bones too. These cells are unique in their creation, co-opting others to their call. They outnumber their counterparts, common cells with the most uncommon purpose. They rule us from within, via an ever increasing network of collective knowledge. A hive-mind within your bones. Reaching out towards your actual mind. The skeleton is not just scaffolding. It is so much more. But I am not surprised we have been so naive, to think that such an aspect of our anatomy could be so simple. It is only human, after all.
In such a short time so much has changed. But no one told us. No one let us know. I study bones and the human skeleton every damn day and I came across this information by some fluke of an internet search. And so I tried to tell you. But I didn’t do it very well. I could blame the PhD, the lack of time, the inexpertise. When in actual fact, I am fairly certain it was because of the facts. I had 800 words, when I needed only nine.
Your skeleton is an organ. Just think about that.
*Regardless of whether or not you make the short-list, entering this competition is worthwhile. Every year it is the impetus for me to write another piece on something else – and for every article I write, my writing gets a little better. I understand my writing a little more.