Communion Of Dreams

Slow fire will still burn you.

As a book conservator, one of the things I deal with most frequently is problems caused by the embrittlement of paper and other cellulose materials.  This embrittlement is, generally, caused by residual acid content from the manufacturing of those materials.  For a period of about 130 – 140 years (basically from the start of the American Civil War until just before the turn of the 21st century), paper was most widely manufactured using an acid bath to wash away non-cellulose fibers, which left that residual acid content slowly weakening the paper.  This is a process known among conservators and librarians as “slow fire“, since it is essentially an oxidation process akin to the combustion of fire, but on a longer time scale.  Perhaps surprisingly, this mechanism wasn’t understood at all until about the time of my birth some fifty years ago, when research started to show what was actually happening to paper at this very basic level.

Now the majority of paper is made using an alternative process, primarily due to environmental needs (less pollution).  It is a side benefit, but an important one, that this usually results in a much more stable and longer-lasting paper, one which doesn’t have that residual acid content causing problems.  Because paper doesn’t have to become embrittled with age – I have lots of examples of paper made 500 years ago that looks as fresh and supple as paper made last week.  The paper we’re most widely using now has a similar stability.

* * * * * * *

Now, it seems, scientists studying evolution and extinction may have stumbled upon a similar stability issue with regards to humans, and it could portend a medical breakthrough which would save countless lives and extend others.

Writing for Seed Magazine this week, Peter Ward notes that of the five major mass extinction events in Earth’s history, one of them was undoubtedly due to a single chemical:

But now, together with Mark Roth of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, I believe we have found a possible biochemical scar, present within living animals, that links Earth’s greatest mass extinction to a single substance: hydrogen sulfide (H2S). Hydrogen sulfide is a relatively simple molecule that gives rotten eggs their distinctive foul odor and is quite toxic–in high concentrations a single breath can kill. And it looks like that is what happened: Hundreds of millions of years ago, hydrogen sulfide probably saturated our oceans and atmosphere, poisoning nearly every creature on Earth.

Yet some creatures, like our very distant ancestors, must have somehow survived this toxic environment. What Roth has discovered is that H2S, incredibly, also has the ability to preserve and save lives. In small doses the chemical puts many animals into a state of “suspended animation,” a useful adaptation that would have allowed creatures to, in essence, hibernate through the catastrophe of mass extinction. If this idea is correct, our understanding of the deep past could lead to a dramatic medical revolution very soon.

What kind of dramatic medical revolution?  The Science Fiction dream of suspended animation, allowing people with an illness or injury to be “set aside” for decades until medical science comes up with a cure, or a way of putting their brain in a newly cloned body?

Nope.  Something a lot simpler, and probably a lot more useful.  This:

When we humans are cut or injured, our bodies naturally produce small quantities of hydrogen sulfide. In essence, the body may be trying to put itself into suspended animation to survive the injury, an instinct held over millions of years in our genes. Yet whenever one of us is dying, say from a heart attack, our first instinct is to give that person oxygen. The problem with this “life-saving” first response may be that the oxygenated red blood cells rush to the damaged cells and act like gasoline on a fire. Oxygen is one of the most chemically active substances on Earth, and though we need it to survive, it can ravage our bodies. The oxygen increases the reactions causing the heart attack in the first place; it tears up more cells and overwhelms the virtual suspended animation that the body-produced hydrogen sulfide created. Then it kills you.

Oxygen.  From whence we get the term Oxidation.  As in “burning” or “fire”.  So, what to do?  Here’s the concluding bit from the article:

Perhaps our first instinct in instances of a heart attack should be to cool the body and let hydrogen sulfide do its natural work. To save life, in other words, you may first have to effectively suspend it with hydrogen sulfide. This tactic may just be what got us so far in the first place.

There is no clear understanding yet of why our injured bodies are able to produce hydrogen sulfide or why H2S puts some mammals into suspended animation. But I believe that Roth has found our body’s own memory of the ancient events that nearly killed our distant ancestors. Some proto-mammals may have been exposed to H2S, and instead of dying, they were placed into a state of suspended animation that allowed them to survive until the initial hydrogen sulfide levels subsided and they were reanimated. Some lucky evolutionary accident ensured the mammals’ safety through a deep sleep, and that accident may still be dormant within us. That which allowed our ancestors to survive millions of years ago might also be a means of our survival now.

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Like paper made 50 years ago, I am not as supple or fresh as when I was born.  I too have experienced my own version of embrittlement.  There is only so much my body can do to keep up with the effects of oxidation.  There are plenty of commercial products out there touting their antioxidant effect, just as there are products I use to neutralize acid in paper, but none of these will return me to my youth, just as I cannot reverse the effects of embrittlement in paper.

But it seems that perhaps we have a new insight into some of the mechanisms at work.  I don’t expect to live forever, but I certainly wouldn’t mind having better and more effective medical treatment for what time I have.  As a conservator, my best hope is to preserve what suppleness there is still left in paper.  I’d be willing to settle for the same thing, myself.

Jim Downey

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[…] the problem which has led to the ethical debate mentioned above.  Add in new research into ‘suspended animation‘, and things are going to get even more […]

Pingback by “Just lie there, sir, it won’t take a minute.”* « Communion Of Dreams

[…] there cannot be revolutionary breakthroughs which could radically change our lives. I’ve also written about how hydrogen sulfide (H2S) seems to be connected to hibernation, and now comes a fairly […]

Pingback by This ‘n that. « Communion Of Dreams

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