Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life
By Gerald H. Pollack, PhD
Ebner and Sons
Every now and then someone comes out with a book that forces us to look at things in a new way. Weston A. Price wrote such a book and so has Gerald Pollack.
Pollack challenges the current view of the cell, the cell membrane and the role of water in the cell. Describing experiments showing that the cell can survive and function with a portion of its membrane removed, or with holes punched in the membrane, Pollack notes that the cell is really a gel, made up of cross-linked structures. And just as jello can hold almost one hundred times its weight in water—the water does not fall out of jello—so the cell holds on to its internal water by the same mechanism.
That mechanism is the structuring of water molecules along the hydrophilic surfaces of the gel matrix. Water lines up against the cell’s inner structures hydrogen-end-to-oxygen-end, not several molecules thick but dozens of molecules thick, creating a zone that excludes larger ions like sodium but not smaller ones like potassium. This selective exclusion makes the current model of complicated pumps and channels for specific compounds across the cell membrane unnecessary. The cell’s inner structure naturally excludes large ions like sodium and holds onto smaller ones like potassium.
Gels are characterized by phase transition, in which physical properties undergo abrupt transformation. Thus, with changes in pH, temperature, presence of solvents or chemical compounds, gels will suddenly expand or contract. The real mechanism is the alternating structuring and de-structuring of water inside the gels. Phase transitions of gels can explain many of the cell actions and functions such as secretion, transport, movement, muscle contraction and even cell division.
When cell division goes awry, the result is cancer. Pollack notes research showing that a difference of water structure underlies organ pathologies—in fact, the technology called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) distinguishes tumor cells from non-tumor cells by sensing a difference in cell water structure. Cancer cells are characterized by mutant proteins and Pollack presents the theory that these mutant proteins might not be able to structure and de-structure water as predictably and effectively as normal proteins.
Pollack’s book raises many intriguing questions—perfect projects for his graduate students. For example, does the fact that water gets structured inside a gel account for some of the health benefits of gelatinous broth? If so, how does the structured water survive the digestive process? Another question: does water structure itself around carbonation bubbles and, if so, does this account for the digestive benefits attributed to sparkling water? Does raw milk function as a gel? Is the water in raw milk structured? My guess is that the answer is yes, and that one of the reasons pasteurization and homogenization are so harmful is that these processes de-structure the carefully organized water in raw milk’s protein organelles and lipid structures. We also hope that Pollack and his colleagues will look into the role of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K in preventing the production of mutant proteins, and perhaps even directly controlling the structuring and de-structuring of water inside the cells.
This book presents difficult material in a clear way; I had to skip over some of the more technical portions but still came away with a good general understanding of the concepts Pollack presents. Pollack writes in a witty and entertaining style and the illustrations are wonderful. Pollack has stepped on a lot of academic toes, but this book is must reading for biologists and anyone interested in the mechanisms of life.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2009.