Metabolism, Mitochondria… meh?
Metabolism is the energy flow within living systems — from single-celled organisms up to blue whales. Energy is fundamental to life, but it’s also handled in a pretty consistent way among most life on Earth: If you’re a multicellular organism, your cells contain mitochondria that handle the sub-cellular processing of the food you eat. (This is true even if you’re a plant!)
Biologically, this is a “highly conserved” process – meaning that it remains strikingly similar all over the Tree of Life, presumably because it is done very, very effectively and the variations that have been tried have made things worse instead of better.
According to Dr. Navdeep Chandel, 2016’s recipient of the National Cancer Institute’s Outstanding Investigator Award, who studies metabolism at Northwestern University, this “sameness” of metabolic processes across organisms prematurely cooled its scientific study during the last decades of the 20th century. Metabolism was considered a “solved problem” and the research action was felt to be in DNA — the molecular code that differentiates life forms.
In the past decade or two, metabolism has started getting some of its luster back.
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Energy can’t be ignored.
The turnover of energy in systems is a necessary condition for life. Full stop. If your metabolic turnover drops to zero, then you’re dead. (Space-faring frozen-solid hibernating tardigrades notwithstanding.)
And the efficient use of available energy is often the difference between life and death, in a world where the competition for resources is fierce. From the countercurrent flow of blood vessels in polar mammals to the remarkable ability of animals (including humans) to transfer from glucose-based to fat-based metabolic inputs, we are designed to regulate our energy usage just so.
And it may be that many of the chronic diseases that modern medicine continues to struggle with are based — at least in part — not on outside pathogens, not on faulty DNA, but on misfiring metabolic pathways…
Or on metabolic paths “gummed up” by imperfect inputs.
It may even be that mitochondrial output molecules are more important in intracellular signaling than we’ve ever suspected. (e.g. “We need a little more of this, a little less of that.”) Fans of the old Star Trek series can remember Scotty yelling to Captain Kirk from the engine room about “the ship can’t take much more of this!” for an example of how this two-way information flow between metabolism and the epigenome might work.
In Episode #226, Dr. Chandel (author of the text Navigating Metabolism) shares with us his research into the subcellular world of mitochondria, ATP, the Krebs Cycle — and how these esoteric interests translate up into real-world lifespan and quality-of-life differences for us big, adult mammals.
Want to try out the vEAR survey?
In the This Week in Neuroscience of Episode #226, we mention the public survey conducted to look at visually-Evoked Auditory Response (vEAR), a type of synesthesia. Want to see if you’re “on the spectrum”? Click here.
Episode introduction: The Return of Metabolism.
This Week In Neuroscience: ROR-beta study and the implications for presynaptic inhibition.
5-Star review shoutouts.
SDS news and updates.
Guest introduction: Dr. Navdeep Chandel.
Interview begins; How Dr. Chandel got into this field.
The two major focuses in the scientific community in the 90s.
The realization that metabolism may be another key input for determining health outcomes.
Underappreciated aspects of metabolism.
Some misconceptions about mitochondria.
Antioxidants and free radicals.
Metformin as a possible way to perturb mitochondria.
Circumstantial evidence on Metformin.
Dr. Navdeep's take on ketosis as an alternate fuel pathway.
More on antioxidants and other supplements.
NAD and mitochondria.
The excess capacity and mTOR.
Closing remarks from Dr. Chandel.
Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: How challenging situations change the way your brain processes the world.