The Gaia Cell – Mythology and Science

Can a goddess of myth help us understand the science of stem cells? Often, in the pursuit of "truth", we can dismiss views that are not expressed in the proper language.

For example, we often think of mythology as storytelling, and science as the language of truth. However, there is no agreed on language of truth. Science has a way of telling stories that takes us back to mythology. Arguably mythology may contain universal truths. Consider recent discoveries about embryonic stem cells. Canadian researchers have discovered that embryonic stem cells produce a host of supporting cells that keeps them immortal. Embryonic stem cells have so much potential because of their unlimited capacity for self-renewal. In the developing embryo, they result in the different types of cells that make up the body.

Dr. Mick Bhatia is principal investigator and scientific director of the McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute at McMaster University. Dr. Bhatia and his team are the first to have shown that, in the laboratory, embryonic stem cells can build their own environment.
They create supporting cells that feed them growth factors they need so they can reproduce indefinitely and become skin, muscle, bone, heart, liver, kidney, brain or more than 250 other kinds of specialized cells.

"The idea that a stem cell has the power to make its own niche, its own environment, to feed itself, no one had ever looked at," says Dr. Bhatia, whose work was published in the July 14, 2007 online edition of the journal Nature.

Stem cells building their own support network, probably takes place as well in human embryos, Dr. Bhatia says. Scientists have known the environment in which a stem cell lives dictate what cell it becomes. In adults, for example, stem cells found in muscle tissue produce muscle cells. But until now, they did not know that stem cells can build their own environment. Says Dr. Bhatia, "This means the stem cells' decisions, at least in the embryonic stem cell, are self-programmed." Previous studies in mice have shown that various types of stem cells hole up in little nests of cells known as niches. These niches are found in specific spaces within various tissues, said Dr. Bhatia,

Drawing a metaphor, Bhatia says a blood stem cell, for example, has a house found in one spot. These stem cells strategically locate in a particular place and surround themselves with cells that have special roles.

"That house is not just a place where they hang out," Bhatia said. "It turns out that house can regulate what they do." Working with cells in petri dishes, his team discovered that an embryonic stem cell makes its own niche out of daughter cells it gives birth to, and these cells in turn "feed" their parent. "We knew the house existed, but we did not know the person that lives in the house kept making the house, made making the bricks," he explained.

"And we did not know the bricks were not just protecting it, a place to be, but the person was feeding off the bricks." There is a better metaphor. Embryonic stem cells are the mother goddess of the human form. They are like Gaia, first force of the universe, the original parthenogenic goddess.

Gaia includes all levels of the cosmos within itself, just as the embryonic stem cell contains every organ and body system within itself. Gaia is to the cosmos what embryonic stem cells are to the human form. Like the embryonic stem cell, Gaia created her own environment. According to Hesiod's Theogony, she created the physical universe, including the skies, the mountains and the seas.

Once the key elements of the universe were in place, Gaia worked with them to create a self-sustaining environment that led to creating all other life-forms. Each life-form has its own unique niche to carry it.

"The Orphan Hymn to Gaia" says it all:

"Goddess, Source of Gods and Mortals,

Mother of All, Who brings forth the bounteous fruits and flowers,

All variety, Maiden who anchors the eternal world in our own,

Immortal, blessed, crowned with every grace,

Draw near, and bless your supplicants. "

"The Orphan Hymn to Gaia" could just as easily be titled "Orpic Hymn to Embryonic Stem Cells."

Well, perhaps not. But why not call embryonic stem cells, "Gaia" cells. In a name, the power of myth could promote scientific understanding. And leave us to ponder the scientific insights provided by mythology.