The Immortal Cell

cell-webBudding. What an appealing notion! We think of Life and Death as guardians of
two doors to the same room—but just a minute—imagine this:

You are the first single-celled organism on the planet. All the information of life on earth is contained within that tiny blob of DNA which constitutes your nucleus, complete information about life in its germinal form. Mitosis—the splitting of that DNA into two nearly identical halves—constitutes the entirety of your sex life. At first this may seem unfulfilling but consider the advantages.

You’ve just had your first single-celled child. Who is the mother and who the baby?

There is no parent cell and there is no progeny. We now have two single-celled organisms. You are at least one of them. And so far you’re not aging badly either; there’s no retirement village in your immediate future.

Generations pass and you reproduce geometrically. There are, perhaps 256 of you by now with still no hint of an older or younger cell. Barring natural disaster, most of you is / are still alive.

Now pass a few million years: you’re swimming through the waves just off the California coast. Given a worst case scenario of attrition due to predators, accidental deaths, and even natural disasters, there is! are very likely still billions of you hanging ten off Malibu.

You are potentially immortal!

So where did things go wrong? What was the reward so tantalizing for which nature sacrificed our immortality?

Its origins .lie in those nearly identical halves into which our original cell split through mitosis. Accidental variations in the duplication and division processes (mutations) precipitated the gradual evolution of distinct and varied life forms based on that original, potentially immortal cell.

Over time a new mode for reproduction developed—the big mistake: we traded mitosis for meiosis.

That might not seem so bad at the moment but here’s the down side: While sexual reproduction (meiosis) allows for the joining of two sex cells, each containing approximately half of the genetic information of the parent, facilitating what we now call selective-genetic evolution, it also allows death to enter the equation.

Not accidental death, not death by natural disaster. But death through old age!
Vessel disposal.

Now there is a certain sort of immortality even in sexual, meiotic reproduction,
with generation upon generation recombining aspects of genetic heritage to create diversity and specialization. But somehow, the immortality of all the information contained in a sperm or egg seems less meaningful (and less appealing) than the bodily deathlessness of our acellular ancestors.

Viewing the necessary death of the parent organism—ourselves—as the dropping of some vestigial tail, somehow stretches the aesthetic limits of the reasonable.

So why did this happen? Why did nature open this hole through which we must be flushed from life?

Death for sex: was it worth it?