Hello from the Mountain of Truth

The first half of this week I am at a conference at Monte Verità (Italian for Mountain of Truth). This in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. The conference kicked off, rather unusually, with a short video on the history of the conference centre. The centre started off as sort of arts and vegetarianism commune, was a sanatorium, then a retreat, and is now a science conference centre. I leave it up to you to judge whether this is progress or not, and if so in what direction.

But the views from the terrace are spectacular, the picture above is from the terrace, although really the camera on my mobile phone cannot do the view justice. At breakfast this morning we looked out on a view with mountains above, a lake below and clouds at eye level on the opposite side of the lake. Beautiful.

This morning I learnt quite a bit about haemoglobin – this is the protein molecule in our red blood cells (indeed it gives them their colour) that carries the oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body. In particular about the crocodile and chicken versions of this protein. I was slightly curious how he got his crocodile haemoglobin but didn’t dare ask. Not sure I would like to take blood from a crocodile.

Anyway, it looks like crocodile haemoglobin differs from human haemoglobin by being adapted to work over a range of temperatures. Our bodies are fixed at a temperature of around 36°C – if we are healthy. So our haemoglobin has evolved to work at that temperature.

Haemoglobin is basically a nanoscale machine for capturing oxygen in the lungs where there is a lot of oxygen from the air, and releasing it in the tissues of the body where there is less oxygen. And so like any other machine it can be optimised to work under particular conditions. This is just like machines we are all familiar with, for example cars. Cars are optimised to work best at speeds of around 30 to 70 mph. If you drive a car at 1 mph it will not be very efficient.

But back to crocodile haemoglobin. Crocodile body temperature varies with environment, because they are reptiles not mammals like us. So crocodile haemoglobin must work from maybe 20 to 40°C, and we can look at the molecular properties that allow it to do this.

Finally, as I learnt this morning, chickens do have a constant body temperature but it is higher than us, around 40°C. Thus chicken haemoglobin has a higher operating temperature than our molecule.

I didn’t know that until this morning, but then typically I only come across chicken in things like chicken jalfrezi, when it is a lot hotter than 40°C.