Thursday, March 11, 2004

The Particulars

I find it remarkable that really fundamental new facts about how living things work turn up all the time. The 5 March issue of SCIENCE, for example, features the discovery of a previously unknown way that an important class of white blood cells, the neutrophils, attack and disable bacteria. As any textbook will inform you, these cells engulf and destroy bacteria by phagocytosis; but it turns out they also know another trick. They can release DNA and various proteins that form a tangle of fibers, neutrophil extracellular traps or NETs, that immobilize and neutralize bacteria outside the cell. The cover of the 5 March issue is a scanning electron microscope image of Staphylococcus aureus caught in such a web. The bacteria look like oranges stuck in macramé. Apparently, the NET mechanism is a routine feature of innate immunity, activated in every pimple in Christendom. You have to wonder why it was so hard to identify the process and what else is going on all over the place that we haven’t discovered yet. And these things aren’t the details. They’re the particulars.

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