Breath of life

Oxygen: “life-giving,” right? The wonderful substance with which we live, without which we die? The stuff with life in it?

Yeah, except that oxygen is a horrific, highly-reactive dangerous element. It does two things: corrode and combust, which are really the same things only slow vs. fast. You wouldn’t want to touch this stuff or get near it on a bet.

And you know what, we don’t touch it or get near it. Not any part of us which is alive. Your living cells are kept safely behind layers of dead ones. The few that aren’t are coated in protective gunk. When air’s inhaled, it’s kept from contacting living tissue by layers of deceased epithelia coated with mucus and then in tubes of non-cellular cartilage; when it’s sucked into our lungs, the oxygen is absorbed into the blood plasma and instantly dissolved there, rendered somewhat less dangerous. Even then, the majority of it is further sequestered in the erythrocytes – themselves non-metabolic and technically no longer alive – behind layers of membranes and bound to molecules of iron – specifically such that it’s not zapping onto anything else. Guys in environmental suits and thick science-fiction gloves have nothing on the care with which living systems interact with this element. It might as well be napalm.

Metabolism and oxygen

That’s why the term “respiration” is dodgy in biology. Anatomically, or medically, it’s the same as breathing, moving a bolus of air into the lungs and back out. But cellularly, it’s oxidizing pyruvate, which is to say burning or corroding it at a one-molecule level. The oxygen itself doesn’t stay in there or do anything else; it’s bum-rushed out as quickly as possible.

There’s a neat evolutionary point about this too: that thing A is often not replaced by thing B, nor is there some kind of half-A-half- B in “transition,” but rather, it goes:

  • A, in this case basic metabolism also called anaerobic, or just glycolysis, which happens in the boring old cell fluid
  • A with B as an augmenter, in this case glycolysis with the fancy mitochondrial mechanisms following it up, called facultative aerobic metabolism
    • in some cases, winds up with A+B meaning they’re both always on, as with most animals including ourselves, called obligate aerobic metabolism
    • in some cases, winds up with B alone, which is not the case for metabolism as we’ve observed it

Keep this in mind for lots of future examples.

But whoa! Distracted by the sexy biochemistry. Here’s what I’m really on about: this is a look at how we cling to the early stages of grappling with life-as-physics, in the early 19th century, with its talk of vitalism.

Breathing and vitalism

The standard narrative tells us that superstitious old vitalism was supplanted by scientific material thinking, but I don’t think that happened. I think some scientific work and writing has managed to eke out a sliver of material thinking and analysis, embattled in its own discipline let alone the academic and larger cultures. I think a whole lot of vitalist thinking, or concepts associated with it, has persisted while wearing party hats that say “science” on them. And I think a lot of plain old vitalist thought remains in the form it always has.

Note: I’m not saying “religious.” This has less to do with religion or spirituality than you might think, although it’s true that historically, powerful religious institutions laid down the boom in favor of vitalist arguments. That’s for another post some time. Here, stay focused on the brute phenomenon of life, period.

Honesty and authenticity

In the authentic world, the one you actually live in, you aren’t kept alive because “you” are provided with oxygen. Your sensations of “life,” of the physiological relief in breathing, and of self-hood as an organism, all operate at a level far removed from the authentic processes which place you in the living, and without which you would instantly die. We are not in contact with that authenticity, and going by our sincere experience, convince ourselves in a lovely circle that any such process must be about us and that experience.

Links: Beginner’s Guide to Corrosion, Why is O2 the supporter of combustion?, Beware the dangers of oxygen, The use of an active learning approach to teach metabolism to students of nutrition and dietetics

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6 thoughts on “Breath of life

  1. Ron, the toxicity of oxygen has actually been the subject of one of those posts that gets screenshotted and passed around, lately!

    Here’s a link to the original conversation as far as I can tell (it’s hard to tell with tumblr):

    The final paragraph is great:

    “What if there are aliens out there but they subsist on entirely different substances and they’re just scared as shit of us and our crazy ass hell planet? Once in a while some alien anthropologist type suggests checking out the people on this inhabited planet out towards the galaxy’s edge. The other aliens just look at the naive academic with horror. No!! We do not go to that world. That is where the DEATH BREATHERS live. They recreationally consume poisons and are more or less composed of biological fire. Their atmosphere is made of rocket fuel. We must leave the DEATH BREATHERS in peace. Do not go there. Do not.”‘

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  2. Hi Ed, yes and no! Deathbreathers for sure – we’re bringing in combustibles and burning stuff with it, and then ejecting it fast. I for one envy the facultative anaerobes, the “A with B” in my little schema. Creatures like that can’t suffocate.

    As for whether gradual oxidation kills us … I advise against grabbing onto that one, however fun it sounds. All mammalian cells, for instance, which is to say across Mammalia, are pretty similar in biochemical terms and our collective whole-body metabolic rates scale nicely with body size. Some species are high or low on that line, but its correlation is generally very strong and we (for example) are squarely on it. If aging were a matter of time-dependent oxidation, mammal species of the same size would have the same or very similar longevities, and deviations would match with deviations in the pattern for metabolic rate. This is definitely not the case.

    To date, I am unaware of studies which strongly support anti-oxidation intervention delaying aging in living organisms, particularly those involving diet or topical applications, no matter what the labels on pomegranate drinks or funky skin creams say. I am also interested in how oxygen gets from within-erythrocyte iron-bound status into the mitochondria. It might be simple diffusion which suffuses the whole cell interior, fine, but it also might not.

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