Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Biology
What I’ve Learned:

Immunoglobulin: even your immune system has door greeters.
Immunoglobulin: even your immune system has door greeters.

I took an immunology class back in college. I’m not sure why, exactly — maybe I thought it said “immortality” and I was looking for the secret to eternal life.

What? I went through a Highlander phase. We’ve all been there.

Anyway, it quickly became clear this class was something completely different — and completely hard. Everything about immunology is complicated as hell. There are, like, nine hundred different kinds of immune cells, a billion marker proteins and pathways out the wazoo. Stuff gets activated. Things turn into other things. Some cells remember crap, some cells spread the word about crap, other cells kill crap… it’s exhausting.

Then they told us about immuno-goblins. And finally, something made perfect sense. It was a couple of months into the semester, the middle of October just like now. Halloween was looming, so goblins were on everyone’s mind.

So when the professor explained these immunogoblins are produced in enormous hordes within the body, each on the lookout for a specific interloper, it made sense. When she told us each immunogoblin’s individual characteristics comes from mutations… well, duh. And when she said they either neutralize invaders or mark them for others to overwhelm — yeah, that sounds exactly like a bunch of goblins.

I went into that test full of answers. Basically, my body is Mordor. It pumps out goblins by the billions, looking out for viruses and bacteria and, I don’t know, effeminate ring-bearing halflings? I didn’t really study for those Tolkien exams, either.

Long story short, I got a 12% on the test, failed the class and apparently there’s not a little tiny Saruman living inside of me, releasing hordes of goblins.

(Turns out it was heartburn. Booo-ring.)

But all that stuff about immunogoblins — sorry, I was informed in red ink those are “immunoglobulins” — is apparently true. These are proteins produced by our immune cells in huge numbers, with millions of different kinds. The tips of each protein contain regions called paratropes, shaped to specifically recognize one specific antigen. Like an elbow of an influenza virus, or a tuberculosis pinky toe.

Binding of an immunoglobulin to its antigen may take the baddie out of commission. But just in case, it also triggers the immunoglobulin to signal to the rest of the immune system to get its ass in gear and come help.

That’s less of a “goblin” thing that immunoglobulins do, I guess. It’s more like a Wal-Mart greeter. Assuming the Wal-Mart was staffed by sentient killer cells ready to surround you, break you in half and eat you. Which, as I understand it, is most Wal-Marts.

In the end, I did learn a couple of things about immunoglobulins. So if you’re ever stuck staring down an immunology exam, just remember these three things:

1. When an immunoglobulin is glommed onto an immune cell, it’s just called an immunoglobulin. But when it’s farted out into the bloodstream to look for victims, it’s called an “antibody”. Personally, I would have gone with “Globs the Bounty Hunters”. This is probably why no one ever asks me to name things.

2. That “paratrope” bit that makes immunoglobulins unique has nothing to do with paratroopers, even if you have an awesome story about your great-grandfather dropping into occupied France to storm… uh, Nazi baguette bunkers or whatever. History was also not a thing I was good at.

3. Immunoglobulins are not like goblins, which means your body is also (probably) not like Mordor. Instead, they’re like evil greeters, which makes your body a Wal-Mart built on a hellmouth. Which seems redundant, and also mostly the same as Mordor, but I’m not the one grading these tests, so give the professors what they want, I guess.

Like I said: immunology is complicated.

Actual Science:
Study.comThe five classes of antibodies
University of ArizonaImmunology problem set
The Biochemistry Questions SiteImmunoglobulins: structure and functions
Science ClarifiedAntibody and antigen

Image sources: MedGadget (immunoglobulins), Wikia (Tolkien goblins), Pop Cult Assault (beware, Dog), Walmart Wall (terrifyingly friendly greeter)

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· Categories: Biology
What I’ve Learned:

Adaptive immunity (at Chuck E. Disease's)
“Don’t make the dendritic cell angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.”

There’s a lot going on with the immune system. Most systems in the body have the decency to only include three or four types of cells, but the immune system just goes balls-out complicated. It’s like trying to keep track of the frigging Duggars, without the Amish gypsy vibe.

The “adaptive” (or “acquired”) immune response is pretty simple, though. Our bodies fight infection using what scientists call the “pissed-off soccer mom mechanism”.

Well. Some scientists call it that. A few. Probably.

Okay, only I call it that, and everyone else tells me to stop. But hear me out.

Think of your body as a bus, or an oversized minivan.

(This will be easier for some of us to visualize than others. Shaddup, skinnos.)

Now imagine the bus is parked at a Chuck E. Cheese’s, where soccer mom has driven to treat the team to an after-game meal. The kids have gone inside, wrought the unspeakable horrors that children inflict inside such establishments — hence the pissed-off soccer mom mechanism — and returned to the van for the ride home.

Before leaving, soccer mom has to take attendance. So she walks front to back, making sure all her kids are all accounted for — and checking for rogue children trying to sneak a free ride home. When she finds one — “Yo, there’s no ‘Salmonella’ on this roster sheet” — she doesn’t kick them off. No, no. The lady is frazzled after six hours of snot-wiping and animatronic idiot music; there’s no fight left in her. Soccer mom is a “dendrite cell”, merely recognizing the intruders. But she takes notes, and returns to the front of the bus.

And turns things over to soccer dad. He’s a “killer T cell”, and it’s his job to rid the bus of freeloaders. He’d rather be watching football, sure, but it was either this job or take the lymph nodes to ballet practice every weekend, so here he is. He takes soccer mom’s notes — the kids all look the same to him, otherwise — and drags the Streptococci and Smallpoxxes of the world off the bus and puts them back where they came from.

Namely, the inside of a Chuck E. Cheese’s.

That’s basically how adaptive immunity (and a kids’ soccer team outing) works: Mom sees a problem, tells Dad to take care of it and he makes a scene in the parking lot. It happened every Saturday during my childhood, and it’s happening in our bodies right now. The “pissed-off soccer mom mechanism” explains all — even special cases:

  • cancer immunology – Some kids on the team get rowdy and distract the driver.
  • autoimmune disease – Dad gets fed up and kicks everyone off the bus
  • immunodeficiency – The kids steal Mom’s notes, and the interlopers take over.

Take my advice: when it comes to immunology, just ask yourself, “If my mom had to put up with fourteen screaming kids all day and then got attacked by a germ, what would she do?” Works every time.

Actual Science:
iBiologyWhat is acquired immunity?
Nature ReviewsDendritic cells: controllers of adaptive immunity
Scripps Research InstituteThe Ultimate Decoy
ScienceAdaptive immunity goes back in time

Image sources: Cell (dendritic cell), ABGAb and Scientific American (cells ‘n’ Duggars), (angry mom), MomLogic (Chuck E. Diseases)

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