Life Lines

Above, a Greenland shark with the parasite copepod Ommatokoita elongata on its eye. The parasite destroys the corneal tissue, rendering the shark partially blind. Stock photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

I was reading an article on the Greenland shark, Somniosus microcephalus, and I thought of my only other encounter with a shark (other than a slab on my dinner plate). That was when I was getting my bachelor’s at NYU and taking comparative anatomy.

One organism we dissected was the dogfish shark, Squalus acanthias. The sharks have no bones. They have a skeleton made of cartilage. The difficult challenge for my classmates and me was dissecting the inner ear within the cartilaginous capsule encasing it. I learned to respect surgeons, especially those working on the ears (like correcting otosclerosis of its calcareous deposits without breaking the coated set of bones that normally help us hear).

I learned that most sharks give birth to live young (puppies) rather than depositing eggs. Sex for sharks is a bit of a contortion act since the male (usually smaller than the female) uses one of its modified tail fins in lieu of a penis to inseminate a female. I also learned that they are quite ancient in the evolutionary scale, dominating the seas in the mid-Devonian era (about 390 million years ago) before the bony fishes out did them in adaptability.

That brings us back to S. microcephalus, which translates from its Latin name to an insulting “sluggish shark with a tiny head.” As its common name implies, these fish are located mostly in the Arctic circle and are spared an endangered species status as they are toxic to humans (and other predators) because they accumulate trimethylamine oxide in their tissues.

Inuits and others who live in that frosty region have learned to treat and ferment the fish so it is not as toxic; but even as a delicacy for the adventurous, it is not a popular item for those who catch fish for a living.

The sharks grow very slowly (less than half an inch a year) and swim at a leisurely pace of about one foot per hour. In addition to accumulating the toxic trimethylamine oxide, they also accumulate large amounts of urea in their tissues, which also contributes to their unsavory reputation among gourmets.

To make matters worse, the Greenland sharks are pretty ugly because they have luminescent parasites (copepod Ommatokoita elongata) that attach to their eyelids and use this to attract prey to their mouths. Although an opportunistic predator with much of their diet being decayed meat from drowned tetrapods and dead fish — they can swallow the floating carcass of a caribou — the sharks have been known to ambush and eat sleeping seals.

So why would such a revolting creature be attractive to research biologists? The answer is surprising. Greenland sharks are the longest lived vertebrates, living to be about 392 (272-512) years from radioactive carbon dating of crystals that are deposited in lenses of their eyes, which are layered like onions. They become sexually mature at about age 150 and attain a full mature adult size of 18 to 21 feet in length.

There is an irony to some of life’s winners of desired traits. Want to live as long as a Greenland shark? OK, make yourself toxic and marinate in urea. Try visiting your relatives at a speedy swimming rate of one foot per hour. Want to be cancer free no matter how old you get? OK, be like a naked mole rat (if you like subterranean life and ant hill type living).

We admire diversity among the millions of species of living things; but in addition to the instructive lessons of life (“Go to the ant thou sluggard”), we can find irony and humor in the knowledge we gain.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

A scene from 'Breaking Away' was shot at the Empire limestone quarry in Bloomington, Indiana

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

What do the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Flat Iron Building and the Yankee Stadium all have in common? They are all made of Indiana limestone whose quarries are chiefly in Monroe County where Bloomington, Indiana, and Indiana University are located.

The limestone industry got its start when the Welsh founder of New Harmony, Indiana, a British millionaire by the name of Robert Owen, tried establishing a utopian community (it lasted less than five years). He returned to Great Britain but his two sons liked American culture. One became the president of Purdue University and the other became a geologist at Indiana University and promoted the virtues of the limestone he studied in the Bloomington area.

By the 1830s with the advent of railroads, limestone crushed into pebbles was widely used for railroad track construction. In the 1880s the era of skyscrapers in large cities began and Indiana limestone was favored because it was easily shaped and cut.

Limestone is calcium carbonate that was formed 330 million years ago when most of the Midwest was an inland sea. Most of life on Earth was in the sea. Ameba-like protozoa sometimes formed calcium carbonate shells. So did crinoids or sea lilies, which are related to echinoderms like starfishes. The limestone for buildings came from a region of the inland sea that had mostly protozoa raining down their external skeletons when they died, forming a fine silt dozens of feet thick.

The Empire limestone quarry in Bloomington, Indiana, now abandoned

When I was a graduate student getting my doctorate in genetics, I would sometimes go on field trips to visit the caves and limestone quarry holes. One of the delights was scooping water from a quarry hole and bringing it back to Indiana University to look at a very rare organism — Craspedacusta — a freshwater jellyfish. Most jellyfish are found in saltwater oceans. Craspedacusta are small, about a half inch in diameter, and they pulsate as they swim in water. During the summer when we have visits from family and friends, we like to take our guests to Lake Monroe and collect fossils, mostly crinoids, in the fractured limestone gravel along the lake’s beachfront.

The limestone industry has supplied courthouses throughout the United States, government buildings like the Pentagon, thousands of limestone war memorials, cemetery headstones and hundreds of skyscrapers around the world.

The quarry holes are not used as landfills for trash. They dot the south central hilly terrain of southern Indiana. Sometimes the homeless or runaways live in the caves that have been dug into the sides of the quarry hole. The land around them slowly turns green with new grasses and trees. Those who work in the stone trade are like a medieval guild, with stone cutters whose families have done this for three or more generations.

In the 1979 movie, “Breaking Away,” which portrayed the Little 500 IU Bicycle Race, the children of the stone workers called their team “the cutters” and many townspeople still wear T-shirts with the word “Cutters” as a mark of pride. We are often connected without knowing it. In my childhood and youth, I was unaware as a Yankee fan that the house that Ruth built was made of limestone that would make my future retirement home (whose façade is made of limestone). I did not know the magnificent paintings I looked at and studied at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were housed in limestone. I did not know that the Flat Iron Building and the Empire State Building that I saw hundreds of times in my youth were made from the same limestone quarries that would house the laboratory in Indiana University where I studied genetics.

Sometimes life imitates art where a skilled writer hopes that in a novel the reader will end up seeing everything connected to everything.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

One of the marvels of being a conscious organism is our capacity to interpret the things we do.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Nedra had her right knee replaced on Sept. 13, 2017, and our daughter Christina and I waited in Indiana University’s General Hospital in Bloomington. She was groggy after some of the anesthesia wore off, and I was surprised that during the same day she was shown how to get out of bed and use a walker to get to the bathroom.

The next day she learned from an occupational therapist how to dress and undress. Also that second day she learned about 10 different exercises in bed to move her right leg. This included sliding her foot along the bed back and forth with her knee elevated and doing a half snow angel movement with her right leg.

I vaguely knew that the mechanics of body motion were first worked out by Giovanni Borelli (1608-1679). Borelli was taught by one of Galileo’s students and was skilled in mathematics, physics and medicine. He also used a microscope for his studies and discovered the stomata of plant leaves and the corpuscles in blood. He did experiments and claimed all body motion is caused by muscle contractions and he worked out the mathematics of animal motion, identifying where the limbs were in relation to the body’s center of gravity.

One of the marvels of being a conscious organism is our capacity to interpret the things we do. Many of those things — like walking, running, holding things or grooming our bodies — we do without a knowledge of the science that is involved in making them possible. We also assign other functions to body motions besides their pragmatic uses. Nedra and I both take Tai Chi for Arthritis at our local YMCA and the slow graceful motions provide exercise of all our joints. The “chi,” or vital energy, I equate in my mind with the same sensation as phantom limbs for amputees, which is neurologically based and not a psychiatric lament for the slow withdrawal of that feeling.

Body motion is paramount for those who dance, relating motion to music and the bonding and unbonding of partners as they go through a dance routine. Judo and tae kwan do are martial arts and can be used for aggressive or defensive activities among combatants. Yoga provides a spiritual aspect to body motion accompanied by meditation for those who practice it. Virtually all of us enjoy spectator sports whether watching baseball, football, basketball, tennis or the myriad of activities in winter or summer Olympic Games.

Anatomists today are well acquainted with the way muscles and bones and their tendons interact for any motion of our limbs, neck, head, hands, feet or other parts of our body. The one activity I did not include in this list is one that I find particularly appealing. The name given to it was by Thoreau who tells us in his Walden diaries that he enjoyed sauntering. It is walking with no direction or goal in mind, just wandering about in the woods or along a stream to take in the delights of nature and to stimulate thoughts for his writing.

When I was in high school and as an undergraduate, I loved solitary walks through Central Park in Manhattan, and my favorite discovery was a spot where I could sit and there were no buildings from Central Park West or Fifth Avenue visible to my eye. I thought of myself as an urban nature boy.

Nedra spent three days in the hospital and she then moved to a rehabilitation facility in a retirement community called Bell Trace. It is nice to see Nedra doing her exercises, converting pain into progress, and we look forward to her returning to our home which will be safety checked before she arrives to prevent slips and falls. For those coming days and weeks our daughter Erica, followed by two of our granddaughters and their husbands, will be out to enjoy Nedra’s progress to experience the confident walking by those with successful knee surgery enjoy.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Oxford University, Gilman Hall

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

If I had to praise a virtually unknown person as having had the greatest impact on our lives, I would choose Daniel Coit Gilman (1831–1908). Gilman attended Yale University and majored in geography. He became an administrator and founded the Sheffield School of Science at Yale, became the president of the University of California and in 1876 became the first president of Johns Hopkins University. He also helped set up the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

In 1875 when he was asked to be president of Johns Hopkins University, he embarked on a tour of Europe. He liked the German university emphasis on scholarly research, the ideas of Thomas Huxley on liberal education, and came back with several European scholars who agreed to teach at Johns Hopkins, which opened its program in 1876.

Gilman started his university with a graduate school, then added an undergraduate program and eventually a medical school. He felt the German model was flawed by giving too much power to a single professor in a department who chose subordinates to teach or assist in research. Instead Gilman created departments with several professors committed to scholarship so they could stimulate their research and mentor graduate students who benefited from the multiple outlooks of the department.

By 1910 the success of the Johns Hopkins graduate program shifted the flow of scholars going from the United States to Germany, and after World War I the flow of scholars moved westward to American graduate schools. Gilman’s ideas led to the overwhelming success in Americans winning Nobel Prizes especially in physics, chemistry and the life sciences. It also flooded industries, hospitals and agencies with talented people applying their skills and creativity to their work.

I wish every science teacher would read T. H. Huxley’s “A Liberal Education and Where to Find It” and “On a Piece of Chalk.” They were published about 1868. The first essay shows how Huxley approached education as a way to connect the sciences, art and humanities, shifting knowledge away from an exclusive focus on Greek and Roman civilization as it was then in British schools and toward our connection to the universe in which we live.

Daniel Coit Gilman

The second is an example of good teaching. When I first read his essay when I was about 19 or 20, I could see him in my mind lecturing to the public and holding a piece of chalk in his hand and describing some shavings of it under the microscope revealing the miniature snail-like skeletons of plankton that dribbled down to build the chalk cliffs of Dover. I wanted to be like Huxley, creating lectures that would send shivers of surprise and delight at new knowledge that touched students’ lives.

I singled out Gilman as an educator who changed how knowledge can be learned and transmitted. Our Nobel Prizes and the esteem of rewards are showered on those who make wonderful contributions to knowledge. They are rarely given to founders of institutions that make new ways of learning possible. Both are necessary in our lives.

If I had to single out the one scientist who made the greatest contribution to humanity, I would give that honor to Louis Pasteur for introducing the germ theory of contagious diseases. His use of the microscope to investigate the spoilage of wines turning to vinegar showed that small round yeast cells were replaced by smaller rod-shaped bacteria. His experiments demonstrated numerous infectious diseases as stemming from specific bacteria. It led to vaccinations, public health programs, pasteurization of the milk children drink and the reduction of infant mortality, allowing mean life expectancy to rise from about 45 years at birth to about 80 years today.

New knowledge and inquisitive minds are what make civilization possible.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.