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A turning point: Human biology demands unifying the science of matter and spirit
Eden Wang, PhD
Biological research in the last century has taken the approach of dissecting systems into parts, studying the parts in a defined setting with controlled parameters, gathering information on the parts in separate settings, identifying the functions of the parts in the defined settings following a defined hypothesis, and then drawing conclusions regarding the function and functional mechanisms of the parts in the defined system. For example, to understand the biology of bone, bone as an organ is first reduced to the level of tissue, which can be examined under the microscope after sectioning and staining. Different bones can be grouped based upon differences at the tissue level. To understand how bone is formed, studies on the morphology of bone at the tissue level are not adequate. So bone tissues are further studied by examining the parts that form the bone tissues; namely, the different types of cells, such as the bone-forming osteoblasts and the bone-absorbing osteoclasts. To study properties of these cells in a defined artificial environment, the osteoblasts and osteoclasts are then isolated from the bones, and placed into petri dishes that contain defined concentrations of inorganic and organic compounds. Studies at the cellular level are also driven by a defined hypothesis. For example, a researcher first would raise a hypothesis such as: Compound A can alter the ability of osteoblasts to make bone matrix. Then studies would be carried out to specifically test the ability of the compound to alter the amount of bone matrix in a defined setting with specific concentrations of chemical compounds. In such a defined setting, researchers further ask the question: How do the osteoblasts receive the instructions of compound A from outside of the cell, and then relay such a signal from compound A to the cell to make new bone matrix? To understand this question, researchers would then study what the cell is made of. By breaking open the cells, researchers then find that cells are made of lots of molecules, which form different micro-systems (organelles), each consisting of a distinct structure, composition, and functions. The make-up of each micro-system, the organization of each system, and the rules of the operation of each system are approached again by breaking up these systems and studying each system in a defined setting. For example, to study how osteoblasts can respond to compound A to make a bone matrix component, cells are broken up and then proteins that can bind compound A are sorted out. Once the “receptor” for compound A is found, then the next question is: How does the receptor communicate with the rest of the proteins in the cell? Such studies belong to a new field of biology called Signal Transduction. Since cells are immersed in a “protein soup”, in which each protein can initiate signal transduction, which is very complicated (see below), different research laboratories generally focus on one extracellular signal molecule. The current state of biological research can be described as different research stations working on different molecules and different pathways. Each molecule works by communicating with several other proteins, via protein-protein interactions that are dictated by their intrinsic affinity attributed by their chemical composition. Such interactions, either transient or permanent, occur in a highly ordered fashion along the axis of time and within a defined space. Any pair of protein-protein interactions leads to some degree of transient or permanent imprinting, and thus serves as a new manifestation of the signals upstream. For example, some protein-protein interactions induce a quite significant change in the shape of a protein (conformational change), which then has a newly gained affinity to bind to proteins that it could not bind to before the interaction. Such an “imprint” would be very transient if dissociation of the interaction at the first place would allow recovery of the original conformation of the protein. It would be rendered less transient if the interaction of the third protein stabilizes the new conformation. In a second case, the interaction of one protein (A) with a second protein (B) could lead to a chemical reaction that adds a phosphate group to (or removes a phosphate group from) the protein (A). The change again can be more or less transient, depending upon the availability of the enzymes that can reverse the original modifications. In a third case, the interaction of one protein (A) with a second protein (B) could lead to a chemical reaction that renders the addition of another protein, such as ubiquitin, a small, well-known protein made in high abundance. Such a modification, called ubiquitination, can lead to alteration of the ability of protein A to interact with other proteins, the alteration of the localization of the protein, or the ultimate destruction of the protein, depending on several different ways ubiquitin is added onto protein A. The change again can be more or less transient (except the destruction of protein A, which is final), depending on the availability of the enzymes that can reverse the original modifications. So, any given protein has the following states: 1) newly made, original state; 2) interaction with another protein but no modification; 3) modification; 4) degradation. In an interesting way, these stages are very similar to the life stages of a human being. For a specific protein, it can interact with many different proteins, but whether such interaction occurs or not is regulated by many extracellular and intracellular factors. Again, for any protein, it can be modified in many different ways, and these are also regulated by many different factors from inside and outside. The protein levels and localizations are also dynamically regulated by these factors. Because of this, the communications between different proteins are dynamically regulated and ever changing. For example, protein A, at concentration 1 can interact with protein B when signal 1 is present. However, at concentration 2, it can interact with B and C when signal 1 is present. At concentration 3, it can interact with only C and D when signal 2 is present. At concentration 4, it can interact with B and D if signal 1 is present… All these will again be different when signal 2 is present. All these again will be altered when signal 3 is present… All these will again be different when signal 1 and 2 are together present…All these will be different if signal 1 occurs before signal 2…All these will again be different in a different cell type since the interaction partners for A are different in the different cell types… Imagine that a cell is immersed in one hundred different signals whose levels are also constantly changing, with more than 100 receptors on the cell whose levels are also subjected to changes, and the receptors are connected with immediate interaction partners whose levels and interactions are also subjected to dynamic regulations, and these immediate interactors again interact with secondary interactors, which again interact with tertiary interactors… To add to teh complexity of the regulation of different molecules, there is another factor that escalates the complexity to a new level: the involvement of a same protein in multiple regulations, such that the change of one molecule will simultaneously lead to the change of a network of molecules, thus rapidly spreading out into changes in many different molecular events of the entire cell. Now, if we remember to place such a complex picture of a cell back to where it belongs in a tissue, which involves the communication between a large group of different cell types, and then remember to place the tissue back into an organ, which involves the co-ordinate communication between different tissues, and then place the organ back into the body, which involves the communications between each organ, then we should have a sense of the immense and almost infinite complexity of the biological system at the level of an organism.
For the human body, the complexity is further escalated to a uniquely high level. At the level of a human body, the communication signals are no longer easily detectable by physical means. These human communication “signals”, such as words, music, art, and numbers, are sent and received between human beings in various forms. A human being has a set of uniquely high-level organs that can decipher meanings from symbols. The reception of these symbols triggers cascades of events that quickly manifest at all levels, from organ, to tissue, to cell, to intracellular molecular events. The “readouts” of these signaling events are only known to the individual human being who experiences the process and then described by the human being as abstractive concepts, such as love, hatred, fear, anger, sadness, and happiness, which currently belong to social, psychological, and spiritual realms of studies. “Signal Transduction” at the human body level is constant, extremely powerful, and complex, but the studies of the nature of the “signals” and the nature of the “readouts” currently belong to many other different fields in a fragmented way, and are almost totally placed outside of the field of biology. It is true that most of our current knowledge in the field of biology is derived from studies of non-human subjects and using artificial man-made systems. This then raises an important question about what approaches we shall take to study human biology and the directly relevant field of human medicine.
With the completion of the human genome project, which identifies the DNA sequence of the human genome, biologists also hope to decipher the functions of all genes, with the help of advanced detection technology and computational technology. How can such a grand task be accomplished? If the function of a gene product is fixed, then there is no question that we can eventually identify the functions of all genes. But if the functions of each protein are varied in different cells, at different times, and under different conditions, as stated above, the hope to unravel the functions of 500,000 proteins at any given time, in any given cell, and under any given conditions is certainly not a human task. Even if we can map out all these details for one human being, can we assume that the same will apply to all other human beings? We have observed that proteins can behave very differently under different extracellular and intracellular conditions. The conditions that alter a human body include the most complex signals, both in physical and non-physical forms, all of which are constantly communicating with a sophisticated reception system and expressed again in both physical and non-physical forms. As we know, the growth and differentiation state of a cell and its responsiveness to any extracellular signal at a given time are determined by the history of the combined signals a cell has received. If we view a human body as a giant cell, the responsiveness of a human body to physical and non-physical signals from the environment is certainly also determined by the combined “signals” one has received during the life history. The evidence for different “responsiveness” of different human beings to the same “signal” is very apparent, but so far such differences are interpreted on levels other than the biological level.
To summarize, a human being can be viewed as a cell, which is constantly changing in response to different signals from outside. Only in this case, the signals from outside are not merely physical, but instead, the predominant signals for human beings are non-physical. These signals are sent and received by human beings via different vehicles. Written language in different forms is one of the most well recognized vehicles. Many of the artistic expressions of the human spirit can be viewed as vehicles of signals: music, painting, sculpture, etc. These signals, like the cytokines in a human body, are regulated at the system level; in this case, the system is the entire human society, which can be viewed as the “tissue” for the “cell” (individual human being). The level above, which corresponds to the level of an “organ”, is the Earth system with many different “tissues” other than those formed by human beings such as those formed by microbes, plants, and animals. The level above the Earth system is our galaxy. The level above the galaxy is what we might call a Universe. So, if we truly examine the system view all the way, human biology can only be properly studied in the system of our entire galaxy. From this, we see that human biology is an integrated field of studies of the human being (cell level), human society (tissue level), the Earth’s ecosystem (organ level), and the galaxy (body level).
So we start from examining the complex web of communications between different molecules in the cell, and move to the recognition of the complex web of communications between different human beings in the human society. Then we ask the question: If we map out and then input all fine details of the molecular compositions and interconnections between the molecules in a cell, into the computer, can we understand the nature of the cell and predict the future of the cell? The answer is no, since one cannot predict the signal input from outside of the cells, and it is the total signal input that determines the function of a cell at any given moment. Then we ask: If we map out and input all signals from outside of the cell in a given tissue, can we understand the nature of the cell and predict the future of a cell? Still, the answer is no, since one does not know the signal input at the organ level. Following this line of thought, the question we are really asking is: Can we ask the computer to figure out how the Universe works? Even if we can input all information in the entire Universe into the computer, the next question is: What is signaling the Universe? Can a computer answer this question?
So the logic follows this line: we use our intellectual mind to approach life’s phenomena and realized that the phenomena are too complex for a human mind to decipher. So we decided that the problem of the human mind to understand life’s phenomena is because our mind does not have enough memory power and analytical power, therefore we subject our mind to a computer. But a computer lacks many other features that a human mind has. Thus, although advanced in computation, life’s phenomena cannot be understood or predicted by computation.
We started by looking at the building blocks of a cell, the molecules, to try to understand how molecules work together. Then we realized that the molecular activities of a cell in a living human being are controlled by layers upon layers of signals and, therefore, can only be understood by placing the cell in the complete system of the macrocosm if we wish to predict and understand the cell’s behavior. How about asking the question: What is a molecule made of? Molecules can be broken down into atoms. What is an atom made of? Atoms can be broken down into electrons, protons, and neutrons. Electrons spins around the protons and neutrons. Then what are these subatomic particles made of? They are made of smaller and smaller particles, each in motion in a vast space. The particles are not solid balls, but are primarily a manifestation of space and motion. The phenomena observed in subatomic level starts to be reminiscent of the phenomena of the macrocosm. So when our intellectual mind reaches out into the macrocosm and the microcosm, and looks at the physical world, we feel that there is something impenetrable by our intellectual mind.
So are we doomed to be ignorant? Or are we looking in the wrong direction? The phenomena are complex and beyond the calculative power of the human mind or the computer, but the reason we look at the phenomena is to understand the meaning and the laws behind the phenomena. Is there a fundamental law behind all phenomena? Are all phenomena only the manifestation of one law? Since there is no motionless particle in the entire Universe, then what is the force behind the physical world? We call the force that drives a human being the human consciousness or the human spirit. Human consciousness cannot be measured or calculated, but is constantly at work. Most fortunately, it has the ability to be aware of itself! So what we experience as human beings is the human consciousness awakening in the form of the human body. If the activities of a human being are governed by the human spirit, then the activities of all other forms in this physical Universe are likely also governed by some form of non-physical force, or spirit. The only reason we do not know that there exist spirits behind all physical manifestations is because our consciousness awakens in the human body, not in other forms, although there are people who claim that they can recall their past experiences as animals, plants, or even rocks.
So the future of human biology will need to face some fundamental questions that have been raised in religion, metaphysics, and cosmology as well. After all, it is the fragmented human mind that creates different fields. If we wish to take a system approach to human biology, we need to take a system approach to life, in general. This means that the study of human biology cannot stand independent of the study of the human spirit. The ultimate understanding of the health and illness of a human body can only come from the understanding of the laws that underlie the deeper connection between human body and human spirit. Such a goal, therefore, calls for the END of the old paradigm of the separation of matter and spirit. The field of human biology might be the ideal field for the unification of all scientific disciplines, which, only by working together as one “body”, could make a big leap forward towards the understanding of the fundamental law of life itself.
Eden Wang, PhD, is a Research Fellow at Association for Asian Research. Eden has published numerous research papers in journals such as Science and Cell.
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