On my last drive to and from Toledo I must have listened to over a dozen Radiolabs. This podcast is electric and filled with bright and intelligent, often provocative, information. They describe themselves as “a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” The format is very compelling as well. The banter between the two hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, is amusing and playful as well as serious and filled with a genuine inquisitiveness. I am always learning something new or a different take on something that is familiar when I listen to their show.
But “Fetal Consequences” was a remarkable broadcast. Apparently it was discovered some 5 or 6 years ago that the placenta was, in fact, not impervious. Before this finding, scientists thought that the mother’s cells and the fetus’ cells were separate, but the discovery revealed that fetal cells exist in the mother decades (4 or 5 or more) after the baby is born. One scientist claimed that they stay in the mother forever. Even women who miscarry or have an abortion have these fetal cells. The more children a woman has, the more fetal cells she carries. Scientists have been trying to figure out what purpose these fetal cells serve.
One theory is that they cause the kind of auto-immune system disorders that hit women more often than men like lupus and scleroderma. However there is not conclusive evidence for this. Another theory is that these fetal cells actually help to repair disease. There was a study which showed that an inordinate number of fetal cells were gathered at the area of a diseased liver. It wasn’t clear what they were doing, but one guess was that they were working to repair it. They seem to be a kind of stem cell. However, large numbers of fetal cells have been located at arthritic sites in the body as well. JB thought that it made evolutionary sense that fetal cells would work to keep the mother as healthy as possible for as long as possible. A simple survival tactic on the baby’s part.
It is clear that this is complex yet incredibly intriguing. Our children continue to either harass or nurture our health long after they have left the womb and left the house. They still get under our skin. Part of the complexity of these cells is that half of their DNA belongs to their fathers. This is a tantalizing piece of information. Not only is my son’s DNA running around in my body but so is my husband’s. I wonder about my friends who have divorced after having children. If some of them knew their ex’s DNA was floating around inside of them, and not just floating–working, I’m not sure what they would do, but it wouldn’t be pretty.
Science is still in the dark about what all this means. Frankly I am too, but there is something satisfying knowing the connections I feel to my son and husband are not just warm amorphous feelings, but perhaps based in a very real way on tangible and physical internal presence as well.
I’ve included the podcast below so you can get all the details.