Nerves Into Stem Cells
Nerve cells are remarkably reprogrammable. The proof? Leprosy bacteria can take Schwann cells – the stuff that wraps nerve cells axon in white, fatty sheaths so they transmit faster – convert them into stem cells, then use them to flummox the immune system and infect the whole body. Which is rather close to what cancer cells do.
Hello, science fiction novelists – biological information is a lot more malleable than most think.
Reported in “Cell” using mice cells in culture and whole animals.
MRC Regenerative Medicine Unit, Edinburgh
Rather shocking, even by British standards.
Here you have bacteria that normally infect peripheral nerves. Bacteria are not supposed to reprogram the host’s DNA. They’re not supposed to convert nerve cells into stem cells which become muscle cells.
In fact, in interviews with the newspaper The Guardian, the researchers are not sure just what kind of stem cell they did get. Yet the bacterially remade nerve cells into stem cells can do a lot, like:
1. Transform into immature muscle cells.
2. Convert into smooth muscle cells.
3. Remake into voluntary muscle cells.
All those different cell groups are then Trojan Horses filled with bacteria that go forth into other parts of the body to infect it.
4. Attract macrophages – a basic workhorse of the immune system.
5. Infect the macrophages, make them form into agglomerations called granulomas that commonly appear during inflammatory responses, and then send the infected granulomas to infect other parts of the animal.
Not only are mycobacterium leprae remaking nerve cells into stem cells as cancer cells do, they’re sending out the infected stem cells much like cancer metastases.
Reprogramming, remaking, and remodeling DNA expression as they go.
A. Bacteria can be used to make stem cells.
This is big. So far, most systems have used viruses – and the stem cells have not always “worked” as plans.
Here is a system where a bacterium has – probably for millions of years – reprogrammed DNA of a very different host species. It’s natural. It works. You should be able to modify it for laboratory purposes.
B. The biome is more important than we thought.
With the understanding that bacteria can convert mammalian cells into stem cells we may now find other bacteria that live on, in, and with us change us a lot more than we thought.
That we ingest microRNAs that change our genetic expression – as in the rice microRNAs that change cholesterol synthesis – may represent the beginning wedge of what these 100 trillion organisms probably can do to our genetics and immunity.
C. Infection and cancer may have more in common than many researchers previously appreciated.
Yes, we know that viruses can produce tumors. But bacteria that turn nerve into muscle – and then use those new cells to multiply and “metastasize” around the body? Clearly there are commonalities of system function between infectious and cancerous agents that need to be looked at again. And again.
D. It’s time to see the body as a highly malleable, quickly regenerative information system.
Our categories of life – bacteria and prokaryotes on one hand – mammalian and eukaryotic cells on the other – are actually much more integrated than many thought. Some British work argues perhaps half of human DNA has links – ancestral or programmatically – with bacterial and viral DNA.
And the real way to understand their links may be to see how they all work together – as competing, rivalrous, parasitic and symbiotic information systems. Information is very fungible, malleable, transformable. Information can be changed to rewrite the forms and nature of life. Including ours.
DNA is one information system. And the pen that rewrites it can be viruses, bacteria, genetic engineering – and ultimately any imaginative human with access to a lab – a thought that has security experts spinning.
Our bodies live on, manufacture, mutate and reform information as the basis of informing life.
It’s time for medicine and public health to take note.
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