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Letters from Downunder

Immortality, Anyone?

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

Millions long for immortality who don’t know
what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday.
                       Susan Ertz (Anger in the Sky, 1943)

(Dec, 2010) Seeing we are approaching a season of Christian rejoicing, I thought it appropriate to broach what is, perhaps, the actual cornerstone of all beliefs – the quest for immortality.

Without that goal, religion has practically nothing to offer. All the suffering, sacrifice, rituals and adherence to rules need to have a reward so wonderful that the above are worth bearing. Christianity promises eternal life with God Jesus to everyone who embraces one of the many versions of Christianity. Islam, Buddhists and indeed every religion offers, promises, and guarantees eternal life in various guises. The ultimate reward is immortality, and there are numerous examples in the respective holy books of this being achieved by mere mortals.

Well, to steal a catch cry, there is good news.

A French research biologist, writing in ‘The Scientist’ in October, has shown that the life of certain cells (and by extension, the things cells make up), can be extended ad infinitum, and in fact are already doing so. Yes, some yeast cells have immortality. But, I hear you say, that’s not a human being. Ah, but discovering how and why they had achieved this ultimate state here on earth has led this professor to the conclusion that human cells could also be made to achieve the same state. The reasoning, like much modern research, is rather esoteric, but does not invalidate it. When these yeast cells divide they manage to exclude the genetic material that has, over the life of the mother cell, been degraded. Such changes are due to a number of things, including radiation, toxins, and some environmental factors, and are passed on to the reproduced cells. These yeast cells prevent that happening. They are inviolable.

Now, recent research from Melbourne and London has shown why these genetic malfunctions get passed on in humans. Part of the panoply of safeguards against disease and death that the body has developed involve a protein called perforin. This material has the ability to detect cells that have been invaded by viruses or turned into cancer cells: they find them, punch a hole in the cell wall, and inject enzymes that are lethal to that cell. This ensures the damaged cell is removed from circulation, allowing healthy life to continue.

Unfortunately, perforin is not always able to do its duty. There are a number of things that can block it, damage it, or otherwise render it harmless to the infected cell, so the work from Melbourne is vital to the proper reversal, eradication or cure of a number of at present barely treatable conditions, including leukaemia. Discovered 110 years ago by Nobel Laureate Jules Bordet, it has taken until now to determine its structure, and to show that a group of these molecules will work together to do what the individual molecule could not do.

This, together with the way certain yeast cells exclude damaged material from its progeny, looks to be a promising advance in the quest for immortality.

Oops! Did I say immortality? What’s wrong with that?

Well, one of the consequences of immortality is immutability. In other words, there can be no change in the evolution of the organism, ever. Well, that is what immortality implies – no change; status quo, today, yesterday, and forever – which is OK for rocks, planets and stars, but is not a part of life.

Change is fundamental to all life. It is not possible to find a living organism that does not change, except for those yeast cells, and even these change size, produce offspring and go on existing – but that’s not the kind of existence we call life.

One of the common questions asked by children who have had a religious upbringing is, ‘but what’s heaven like?’ No one knows, although there are some fantastical stories, but any heaven is inert. To be everlasting, it has to be unchangeable and thus without life as we know it. So – is your idea of heaven one where we will go on living, enjoying things much as we have on earth? Think again. You may say that it makes no difference, whatever heaven is like, it is good enough for you.

And there’s the real rub. ‘You’ won’t exist, because ‘you’ is the result of change. From birth to death we all change irreversibly. Beyond death there is either immortality and non-existence, or mortality. But that’s what we had while we were alive on earth. I’ll settle for the latter.

So, in a message of good Christmas cheer from down under, enjoy life here while you have it. Remember the festivals, do good to all men, and rejoice that we are vibrant, organic humans who survive through change. How about we resurrect our regard for life, our love of humanity, and our respect for everyone different to us. That is, everyone in the world.

Peace be unto you


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Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker