16 September 2009

Title decoding

Title of a recent paper in Science: Motile Cilia of Human Airway Epithelia are Chemosensory (Shah and others, vol 325, pp. 1131-1134, 2009.)

Time to apply the Science Jabberwocky approach, as I'm unfamiliar with many of those terms:

Mimsy borogoves of Human Airway Bandersnatches are Frumious.
(motile) (cilia) of Human Airway (epithelia) are (chemosensory)

4 terms we need to get definition of (those of we who don't already know them, that is).

Cilia, whatever they are, can apparently be motile or non-motile. By the writing, that doesn't seem to be the new observation. But that they can be frumious, er, chemosensory, is apparently news.

The abstract itself tells us what the cilia are -- microscopic projections that extend from eukaryotic cells. (If we know what a eukaryotic cell is, we're set. Otherwise, we have to do a little more research, and discover that eukaryotic cells are those with separate parts to them, including a nucleus -- that covers all animals, plants, and fungi).

We also have to go look up 'epithelial'. We're ahead of the game if we know that epi- tends to have something to do with 'on the surface'. Epithelial cells are those that are on the surface of our body cavities -- lungs, digestive system, etc..

Chemosensory ... well, sensory is nicely obvious. Chemo- as a prefix means that the cells are sensing chemicals.

So with a little decoding work, and perhaps using google search for definitions (enter define:epithelial as your search and you'll get links to the definition of epithelial), we arrive at our understanding of the title. -- There are cells lining the surface of our airways that have little extensions. The authors show that the extensions are sensitive to chemicals.

In reading the paper itself, we find that it is particular kinds of chemicals that these cilia are sensitive to -- 'bitter'. When they detect such compounds in the air, they start getting active and try to flush out the bad stuff they've detected.

The conclusion is not especially a surprise to me. I've long been confident that my airways were sensitive to certain chemicals (though I didn't know which). Walking past a perfume counter has always been a problem for me, as my lungs shut down or at least try to. Folks have said that it's just my imagination, and all that is happening that I'm smelling the perfume and causing the rest. That doesn't work well as a hypothesis because I have an exceptionally bad sense of smell. Usually the way I know the perfume is present is because I start having more difficulty breathing. The paper also corresponds to a different experience of mine. Namely, I don't have such reactions to flowers, even flowers in large masses as we get in spring with the honeysuckle, or lilac bush. The cilia are reactive to bitter compounds (known from the paper) and probably (a point that's very testable) perfumes have more such compounds than flowers do.

Per my usual, I've written the corresponding author about this post. Also, if the sample donation process is quick, easy, painless, harmless, I'm willing to donate a sample of my highly-reactive (I think) epithelial cells for their further research.

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