This article first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Lifelines, the Life West student magazine.
Even before I knew what vitalism and mechanism were, I felt that the body worked as a whole, especially once I started to work in health care. I would see people working on highly focused fields of study and research, with little to no regard for anything else going on around that field of study. I do not think that this was and is done intentionally, it is more a product of the focus and nature in which anatomy and physiology is typically taught. I always felt things were interconnected as this was going on, even if I did not consciously recognize I was making this connection, or know what was happening anatomically and physiologically. Furthermore, I dismissed these thoughts at times as I was unlearned in anatomy and physiology, dismissing my thoughts and ideas as silly or wrong because of my lack of formal training. So even though I never voiced my ideas, I thought that the intimate nature of the cells and organs within the body must at least have an effect and method of communication with each other, either via the nervous system or otherwise.
Which is why it makes sense to me, in a way, that cells that are supposedly in the “wrong area” seem to find an actual function in that region in which they are found, even if it seems like a completely unorthodox place for that type of cell to be. An example of this is highlighted in a recent study that found cells that “taste” within the lungs. These cells show up after an infection of influenza, with the infection seemingly triggering the body into making these cells. They are typically found within the lining of the intestines and are called tuft cells.
I also seem to wonder why your intestines would need to taste, but perhaps it makes sense in the fact that if you need to taste what you’re eating to assess whether it is good for you to eat, perhaps the intestines need to taste as well to assess what to do with the food. An advantage of these cells being in these places is the fact that they are able to communicate with our immune system, while also being able to taste the environment around them and identify potential threats that would otherwise go unnoticed by our immune system.
Researchers are finding that our immune system and the cells which give us our taste and smell seem to have evolutionary links that go more in-depth than was otherwise believed or even
thought of. I feel this makes sense in that our immune cells do need to be able to detect what it is
they’re looking for in some way. For example, we learn about the MHC complexes and their use in
identifying self vs. foreign, as well as other antigens that are used to help identify foreign
invaders from the self that the antibodies of our immune system use. But now we are finding other
ways in which the body can detect something that does not belong, or could be causing us
Another cell that seems to live someplace where it shouldn’t is the Olfr78 cell in the
kidney. It is an olfactory cell that is found there, but it makes you wonder why would you need
the smell in your kidneys? Research into the cell found that it responded to a molecule secreted
by intestinal microorganisms, and this would have an effect on the renin-angiotensin pathway
regulating our blood pressure. Even more examples include cells in your lungs that can taste
bitter and sweet, each triggering different responses in the lung tissue.
What does this have to do with mechanism and vitalism? I feel this just shows how we
can’t compartmentalize things into set or strictly defined compartments or areas. We have to
remember that all the cells work together in harmony, even if they seemingly create isolated or
individual clusters of cells that form organs with distinct jobs. Using a mechanistic point of view
can be beneficial to simplify things and help focus an area of study or thought period, but we
must not forget that one part is tied to other parts and could easily share functions, or seemingly
cells in a certain way, that would otherwise not be considered unless we thought of the body as a