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Medical, Practical Science, Testing

Mutagenic Chemicals: The Ames Test

Dr. Ames invented a test to determine how mutagenic any given chemical was.  He introduced it to a bacteria culture and looked for upsets.  This is almost the same as looking for carcinogens, except that our metabolism changes one chemical into one or more others, and the bacteria don’t mimic this.  But it is a great screening test.

So, Dr. Ames then proceeded to test every chemical (“natural” or “man-made”) known to man, and had surprising results.  About 50% of all chemicals were mutagenic!  How could it be that we do NOT automatically get cancer?  Clearly our bodies are actively neutralizing carcinogens and we only get cancer when the load overwhelms our ability to neutralize it.

Think about the fact that plants are in constant chemical warfare with other plants and pests.  They crank out one weird chemical after another in order to defend themselves. Then we try to eat as much of it as we can manage.  Of course the more toxins we can process, the bigger our food supply, and so it goes.

Dr. Ames then plotted species lifetime vs. body mass and got a super clean curve.  Big creatures lived longer while small creatures had shorter natural lifespans.  Why?  The small creatures like humming birds had very high metabolic rates, consuming their body mass or more each day, while big creaturs like elephants had very slow metabolisms, ate only a fraction of their body mass daily, and had longer lifespans.  The reasoning goes that all food contains toxins and the more (on a percentage-of-size basis) we eat, the more quickly we are overwhelmed.  Studies within a single species bore this out – dogs starved lived longer than dogs fed all they can eat.

So, where do we go with this?  We all know we should eat less, for our health.  This gives us another reason to do so – every bite we eat puts a load on our liver’s ability to deal with the toxins therein, and brings us closer to a system melt-down.  But, what to do to beat cancer?  There is probably merit in the idea that not all foods are equal, and that a preventive diet can extend our lives.

Example: American diets are rich in grilled red meat.  Well, when you heat and oxidize meat, you burn some, generating a random collection of chemical species — half of which are mutagenic, according to Dr. Ames.  Americans accordingly have high rates of colon cancer.  Japanese eat more raw meats, such as sushi, where there is no burned material, but this carries a higher risk of bacterial infection.  They accordingly have more oral cancer in Japan.

But should the strategy be to reduce toxins to a managable level, or to strengthen or even augment our capacity to deal with toxins?  Or should we look to repairing the damage that toxins have already done?

The longer we hope to live, the more these questions mean to us, and the more intense our search for the right answer(s) becomes.

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