Death as preservative

This week at the Faraday Institute I went to a seminar by Andrew Wyllie (the recording is here). This guy is a legend – not many scientists can say that they have over 25,000 citations. He was one of the main people who discovered the process of ‘programmed cell death’ (apoptosis). Apoptosis happens during the normal development of any organism, and is also essential for survival during adulthood – if it’s disrupted in any way it can cause cancer. I worked on apoptosis during my research masters course at Edinburgh, and first met Professor Wylie at a dinner-discussion in Cambridge when I had just begun working for Christians in Science. In his talk this week Wyllie described his work on apoptosis and then linked it to his faith in quite a surprising way.

It took a while for the research community to accept the idea of programmed cell death, but it has now (as you can tell by the 25k citations) been recognised as a vital aspect of cell biology and become the subject of many other people’s research. After describing the discovery of apoptosis Wyllie explained how his Christian faith helped him to recognise and accept the evidence that that death was part of life for us. The Genesis account of the inherent corruption of humans led God to – in a way – protect us from ourselves by giving us finite lives. And for a Christian death is not the end of the story. This idea of death as a type of preservative for human society is similar to the story that Wylie found in cell biology.

Wylie thinks one of the reasons why the scientific establishment took a while to accept apoptosis was the fear of death that’s inherent in modern society. And he thinks that it took someone who wasn’t afraid of death to bring the phenomenon of programmed cell death to light. That’s an interesting perspective on the development of scientific ideas to say the least.

You can listen to the recording here.

5 thoughts on “Death as preservative

  1. Joy Tibalan January 27, 2011 / 5:43 pm

    Hi! Thanks for posting this. : ) Am just surprised. It never occurred to me that the concept of programmed cell death/apoptosis, is only gaining acceptance in the research community. While in Medicine it’s an established fact,in fact it’s a fundamental knowledge in Medicine;i.e. physiology, pathology; in our understanding of the human body and in some diseased state. Is this just some sort of theory for some?


    • Ruth Bancewicz January 28, 2011 / 9:17 am

      Hi Joy, You’re absolutely right – it’s established now, but back in the 70s it took a wee while to catch on.


  2. Derek White January 27, 2011 / 9:57 pm

    Thanks very much for this article Ruth [and for all your work on the question of Science & Belief]. I am in the initial stages of a research project [Exeter University] on the question of Evolution [theistic], Evil [pain, suffering, death] and the Goodness of God. The work by Andrew Wyllie could prove a useful ‘added extra’ when looking at the Genesis account of the ‘fall’ and death. I’d be thankful for any other, not too technical [I’m OK with philosophy!] stuff on the subject.

    Kind Regards. Derek [ELF]


    • Richard Hosking February 3, 2011 / 11:19 pm

      Interesting talk by Prof Wyllie – his co-discovery of apoptosis was certainly a landmark achievement.

      I think it’s important to consider the actual nature of the first human death recorded in Genesis subsequent to the Fall. Abel’s demise wasn’t through accident, illness, old age or (for that matter) apoptosis. Rather, his murder was secondary to anger engendered by a ‘religious’ dispute (Gen 4:2-10). Fortunately, the Good News starts with Abraham a few chapters later.

      An exciting prospect for 21st century medicine is based on the ability of some cells to completely regenerate. Zebrafish (as featured in Ruth’s Gravatar) have the amazing capacity to repair their damaged heart muscle. This week the British Heart Foundation have recruited a talking zebrafish (voiced by Andy Serkis) to launch their fund-raising campaign for translational research into how this could be applied to people. The campaign is called ‘Mending Broken Hearts’ – which, ultimately, is something that Jesus came to do, too.
      Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:18 (KJV)

      Incidentally, the zebrafish as a ‘model organism’ was developed by George Streisinger, a Hungarian Jewish scientist whose family’s escape to the USA saved him from the Holocaust.


  3. Roger Morris January 27, 2011 / 10:42 pm

    I had the honour of being taught pathology by Prof John Kerr as a Medicine undergraduate at the University of Queensland in the early 1990s. Kerr was one of the co-discoverers of apoptosis and the first researcher to coin the term.

    I believe Kerr, Wyllie and Alastair Currie first published a paper on apoptosis in the British Journal of Cancer in 1972.


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