RNA at work…

She was a nun, Sister Natalia, and when she spoke, we sophomore girls decided that she needed adenoid surgery. But this aging woman was whip-smart, and I began to truly listen to her, discovering that I was enthralled with a subject I had never studied before—biology.

She covered the basics, vertebrates and invertebrates. We looked in microscopes to identify unicellular ciliates like paramecia. We learned to define words like flagellum and cytoplasm.

But concurrent with these basics Natalia was teaching us—was a series of magnificent articles in LIFE MAGAZINE. The series was called The Human Body—this was late in 1962.


The articles, what Natalia was teaching us, was the beginning of my falling in love with science, and much later becoming an RN. The LIFE MAGAZINE series was ground-breaking and I saved some of the pages, still have them. Part three was entitled: HOW FUEL BECOMES ENERGY.

The above photo is a science illustrator’s conception of Messenger RNA or mRNA—what scientists are using now to create the COVID vaccines that will save many lives.

The article described the drawing: Here the Messenger RNA is joined by fragments of another RNA molecule called Transfer RNA (green). These have different types of amino acids trailing from them (red prisms with different numerals). The amino acids attach themselves to the Transfer RNA with the help of ATP and enzymes (red and yellow spokes at the upper center). Then the transfer RNA interlocks with Messenger RNA, causing the trailing amino acids to join in a long chain. Such a chain is a protein. Ready for use, the protein leaves the ribosome (far right). Thus, the precise, predetermined pattern has been passed on from DNA to Messenger RNA and Transfer RNA to make a protein chain—which is what the cell set out to manufacture in the first place.

I FORGIVE YOU, if you didn’t read all of that. I just want to emphasize that this SCIENCE has been around for many years. The creators of the vaccines to fight COVID19 are pulling from established scientific norms which were know and utilized before some of you reading this were even born. Terms above and others like mitochondrion, coenzyme are not new to our world!


When my husband was diagnosed with CLL (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia) in 2002, his knowledge base was that of a healthcare consultant, so he was familiar with more medical terms than most. I was a registered nurse—but I had to look this disease up in my Medical Surgery textbook. The first thing I found was that “these patients live for about five years.” I then turned to the copyright date—this was an older book. I immediately had hope—medical science is constantly finding ways to cure disease, improve overall health. Today, my husband is as feisty and healthy as ever. THIS IS ONLY TO EMPHASIZE, we need to believe in science.


Married couple and doctors Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci run the BioNTech lab in Mainz, Germany. When the United States and other western countries began to pay more attention to the virus that was spreading in China and killing people, they both realized it could spread around the world, causing a pandemic. Sahin immediately began work to discover a vaccine, using mRNA or messenger RNA.

A recent article in TIME MAGAZINE, took us back to the time period I refer to above. “Scientists …at Cambridge and James Watson at Harvard first identified and isolated mRNA molecules in 1961…Then in 2005, a pair of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, showed how to tweak a synthetic mRNA molecule, so it could get into human cells without being attacked by the body’s immune system. This and other discoveries are the reason that in the autumn of 2012, my husband entered a clinical trial that used monoclonal antibodies to attack his cancer cells and thus add years to his life.

DEFINITIONS: An antibody is a Y-shaped protein produced by B cells, which are part of the immune system. There are several different kinds of antibodies, and typically vaccines are designed to produce the antibodies that recognize and “tag” viruses as foreign invaders by binding to unique parts of a virus.

Antibodies that bind to the surface of a virus and block entry into a person’s cells can actually prevent infection or disease: this is called neutralization. These antibodies, which occur naturally in some people after vaccination or infection, can be copied in the lab and then given to people as a prevention option or treatment. The term “monoclonal” refers to these laboratory-made antibodies.


All of this is to emphasize that science is keeping us alive, is fighting COVID 19. The terms one reads about in relation to the vaccines have been around for a long time. The very up-to-date article in TIME concludes: The ability to code messenger RNA to do our bidding will transform medicine. As with the COVID vaccines, we can instruct mRNA to cause our cells to make antigens—molecules that stimulate our immune system—that could protect us against many viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens that cause infectious disease. For a visual chart to to:

PHOTO: LIFE MAGAZINE, from pages I’ve kept for a lot of years! 


“We’re made of star stuff.”

"We're made of star stuff."

“We’re made of star stuff.” Carl Sagan, our country’s beloved astronomer often said this. But he wasn’t referring to the heights we might reach in a career. He was actually making a reference to the elements in our universe, those on the periodic table, those that resulted from the BIG BANG and now form part of us. Julia Rosen writes in her piece: “The Periodic Table’s Original Place Setting”, that since the invention of the periodic table some 150 years ago this month, “…scientists have worked to fill in the rows of elements and make sense of their properties” and “…scouring the cosmos to figure out where all 118 elements came from.”

Their conclusion: “…every element on Earth–except for a few made recently by humans–was inherited from the nebula that gave birth to our solar system 4.5 billions years ago.”

That includes the iron in our skyscrapers, the silicon in our computers, the gold in our jewelry, and THE CALCIUM IN OUR BONES. 

STAR STUFF (If you skip the science, make sure to read the poetry at the end.)

It’s a nice thought, that we are made of star stuff, but unlike the universe we have an expiration date. The definition of infinity is: Limitless or endless in space, extent, or size; impossible to measure or calculate.

But in our world, more and more things feel finite. Things will end. Lives will end. Things won’t stay the same. Maybe that’s because of the rapid changes in our culture. With social media and almost everyone owning a phone and having access to so much information, you have to be a SUPER STAR to stay in the limelight, to keep up. You have to outshine everyone else in your words, actions and ideas. You have to read, watch, imbibe everything you can. Being quiet probably won’t work. Or it will at a level that may still be acceptable–which I see as a good thing.

But having just written those sentences, I find so much irony in my word choices: SUPER STAR, LIMELIGHT, OUTSHINE.

And if you don’t mind my upfront admission: I reject referring to men and women whose occupation is ACTING as stars. They are ACTORS. They might be made of some starry stuff–but so are we. Everyone is–according to science and Carl Sagan.


Julia Rosen writes in her piece that within fifteen minutes of the BIG BANG, atoms of hydrogen (which on the Periodic Table is atomic number one) coalesced out the cloud of newborn particles as it expanded and cooled. Some expanded and cooled to make helium (atomic number two)  And get this:

THESE TWO ELEMENTS MAKE UP 98% of the universe and are the primary ingredients in stars. And the very first stars formed about 100 million years after the BIG BANG. If you want to learn more about how the next elements were formed ie atomic number 6 which is carbon, atomic number 8 which is oxygen read here .


  • It is now 13.8 billion years after the BIG BANG. Stars have converted about 2% of the universe’s hydrogen and helium into other elements.
  • Platinum (atomic number 78) is a million times more rare that iron because neutron star mergers don’t happen very often. (That’s why precious metals are precious.)
  • The presence of elements such as carbon and oxygen helped cool corners of the galaxy so that smaller stars like the sun could form.
  • The appearance of metals allowed solar systems to emerge from the discs of gas and dust that swirled around these stars.
  • The increasing ratio of iron to elements such as oxygen also increased the chances of forming rocky planets with large cores, like Earth.
  • As the universe ages, its elements will get heavier, star formations will cease, and its composition will stop changing. How much hydrogen will be left?

But the universe will still exist in a sense, since all elements are really just rearrangements of the hydrogen atoms that formed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang. They’ve been there ever since, in one element or another, Rosen writes. “Some are here on Earth, where they make up everything. Including us.”


Neil de Grasse Tyson, an astrophysicist famous for his writing and his wild ties, has knowledge and poetic skill. So he gets the last word for this post:

“There is a fundamental reason why we look at the sky with wonder and longing—for the same reason that we stand, hour after hour, gazing at the distant swell of the open ocean. There is something like an ancient wisdom, encoded and tucked away in our DNA, that knows its point of origin as surely as a salmon knows its creek. Intellectually, we may not want to return there, but the genes know, and long for their origins—their home in the salty depths. But if the seas are our immediate source, the penultimate source is certainly the heavens…

The spectacular truth is—and this is something that your DNA has known all along—the very atoms of your body—the iron, calcium, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and on and on—were initially forged in long-dead stars. This is why, when you stand outside under a moonless, country sky, you feel some ineffable tugging at your innards. We are star stuff. Keep looking up.”

Photo Credits: LA TIMES, Creative by Nature