Strange but true: Food for thought


Q: Mulling the subject of world-wide hunger, what are a few factoids that are truly food for thought?

A: Hunger pangs don't take long to kick in; just a few hours without food and tummy rumbling is likely to begin, says Tasha Eichenseher in "Discover" magazine. Go a few days into a fast, and your body will start feeding on its own proteins -- i.e., your stomach starts eating itself.

Two billion people worldwide eat beetles, wasps, worms and other bugs for protein. Yet according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, nearly one billion people will go to bed hungry tonight, 200 million of them children. Extreme malnutrition, or kwashiorkor, can cause an extended belly as well as swelling of the liver, with the No. 1 cause of death from starvation being heart failure. Some years ago, 10 fasting imprisoned members of the Irish Republican and Irish National Liberation armies lasted 46 to 73 days before dying of starvation.

On the other hand, various animal studies have suggested reduced calorie intake can cut rates for cancer and other diseases and will prolong life. "So much for an appetite for life!"

Q: Roughly how small are we humans at the very start of things?

A: The wondrous, natural process of reproducing ourselves starts when a woman's ovary releases a mature egg, a cell roughly the size of the period at the end of this sentence, says David G. Myers in "Exploring Psychology: Ninth Edition." "Like space voyagers approaching a huge planet," the 200-plus million deposited sperm race upstream to a cell 85,000 times bigger, where the few reaching the egg release digestive enzymes that dissolve its protective coating. After the one penetrating sperm is "welcomed in," the egg's surface now blocks out the others. Half a day later, the two have become one.

And thus was formed the ONE that became "you" and each of us. Yet, as Myers puts it, "if any one of your ancestors had been conceived with a different sperm or egg, or died before conceiving, or not chanced to meet the partner or... The mind boggles at the improbable, unbroken chain of events that produced you and me."

Q:: The laboratory cat is readied, an electrical impulse is applied to a patch of tissue in its brain stem, and then--hiccup! Like the cat, many other mammals share our hiccup reflex, with a sharp intake of air followed by the glottis at the back of the throat closing off the airway. How annoying! Now you wonder, what evolutionary ancestor should you blame?

A: Try the tadpole, suggests University of Chicago paleontologist Neil Shubin in "Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body." The "pattern generator" brain stem tissue evolved more than 400 million years ago in fish to control under-water (gill) breathing and was gradually co-opted for air breathing by land animals.

But the neural circuitry is prone to spasms, or short circuits, that rekindle ancient vestigial behavior. With both gills and lungs, tadpoles use the glottis-closing hiccup pattern generator when they breathe with gills to prevent water from entering their lungs. "Gill breathing in tadpoles can be blocked by carbon dioxide, just like our hiccups"--think of breathing into a paper bag. "We can also block gill breathing by stretching the wall of the chest, just as we can stop hiccups by inhaling deeply and holding our breath. Perhaps we could even block gill breathing in tadpoles by having them drink a glass of water upside down."

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