Copper? How Could We Forget?

There is an image of science as a clear-cut way of finding out about the physical world.  This is good because it is the best way of doing this.  Science’s rigorous controls, double-blind testing, repeatability and peer-pressure ensure that only a few workaday scientists would risk their reputations to say anything even remotely controversial.  However, progress in understanding the world will always be subject to the tools and techniques available and the potential political impacts of the outcome of the research.  Politically-sensitive science is always subject to scrutiny; not all of it rational and some of it just downright ludicrous.  Climate-change and drug policy are two good examples.  The science in and of itself isn’t usually all that controversial but proponents of one policy on how to tackle a given problem will always do their best to muddy the waters.  This is especially so if a lot of money is involved or an election manifesto promise has to be kept.

As an example of how science moves on there is an article on the BBC website about the possible role of copper in Alzheimer’s.

As an example of how science moves on there is an article on the BBC website about the possible role of copper in Alzheimer’s.

During my final degree year in Biochemistry, I was a research assistant looking at the effect of copper-deficiency in rats and was tasked with measuring the activity of one of the most important proteins in the body.  The protein, called cytochrome oxidase, is resposnible for the final act of burning your food.  This involves the creation of water from oxygen and hydrogen and the storage of energy in the molecule called ATP.  Cyanide can stop this reaction occuring, which is why it is so dangerous and quick as a poison.  Without copper you would not live.  Children born with a cytochrome oxidase deficiency die not long after becoming active, living initially on the limited energy extracted in the partial burning of food that creates lactic acid rather than water and carbon dioxide.  The cramps is a particularly painful way to die.

There is some evidence that suggests that copper has a role that prevents a small protein called beta amyloid leaving the brain.  The protein is associated with the formation of plaques in the  brain, which are, in turn, associated with Alzheimer’s.  The excess copper may be dissolved in the water flowing through copper pipes but as yet there is no evidence to support this.  Please note the extraordinarily cautious language that is being used.  If only this option were available to a short-horizon politicians.

So there you go.  You might not live to be old with copper and some people can’t remember whether or not they’ve lived without it.  The confusion is not the fault of science.  Nature has evolved systems that reproduce and then die after rearing young.  Our desire to live longer means that we’re on our own (although there is medical technology, of course).  Alzheimer’s and other diseases of old age were not subject to Nature’s great filter, natural selection.   There is no gene for longevity, just a powerfully-evolved mechanism to pass on your working set of genes before you get old.

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