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50 Trillion Cells In The Human Body, A Soft Machine Called ‘You’

50 Trillion Cells In The Human Body

How Many Cells In The Human Body…

50 Trillion of them. 50 Million Million. 50,000,000,000,000

Excerpted from A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World’s Happiest Man

No one really knows for sure. Estimates for cells in the human body used to go as low as 10 trillion. As we learn more, estimates run up over 100 trillion, but does it really matter? It’s a miracle.

There are too many to count, but they all work together in precise harmony anyway. See – a miracle.

No matter how many times you look at ’50 trillion,’ the most widely accepted estimate of cells in the human body, no matter how easily the words slip off your tongue, the number’s so big we can never really get it. But it’s worth thinking about because it’s so amazing that a soft machine with that many working parts ever got made.

And made again. And again and again, day in and day out.

Each of us is different, constantly changing, and none of us will ever have enough time to count.

Future generations will invent devices to do it for us, but if the average turns out to be thirty, sixty or even a hundred-trillion, the organization and coordination will be no more or less miraculous. After a few hundred billion, the numbers have no meaning anyway. They’re too vast, like looking into the night sky and seeing uncountable stars falling off into eternity.

Except we’re up close, and that astonishing universe is within us.

Human Body
Human Body

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Cells In The Human Body, 50 Trillion Little Factories That Never Close

50 trillion cells in the human body going about their business, mostly designed to operate without conscious management. Each comes to life with the same DNA, yet each still figures out its specific and designated purpose, every one of them knowing which must get down to the business of building muscle and which must generate bone marrow.

Certain lung cells help with breathing manufacturing lubricants hour after hour, day after day, without our posting a single memo or calling a meeting. Others down the line get involved as distant bronchiole trade oxygen for carbon dioxide with blood cells.

Oxygen floods through our blood streams all the way out to the tiniest capillaries in our feet and hands, fueling metabolic engines, before our veins carry back carbon dioxide, our blood now fouled and blue. Waste is shipped back to our lungs to be exhaled in a future breath.

This simple version doesn’t come close to fully describing to the intricate dance of molecules working ceaselessly to generate the energy that lets us live. Whole textbooks are devoted to the finely tuned details, and still, a lot of what goes on isn’t known.

The thing to remember is that it happens, for as long as we live, and unless we get into trouble, most of us never have to think about it. Think of it. 50 trillion cells in the human body, working together in harmony with no cops or courts or street signs.

Not only do thousands of activities take place simultaneously and in coordination throughout all the systems in our bodies, each seems to know enough about the others to adjust accordingly.

Fluids and temperatures harmoniously adjust according to conditions. Mishaps occur, of course, and the chain reactions can be catastrophic. Yet, when we stop to think about all that is going on, even in the relatively simple chain of taking an idea from my brain out to my fingers where they tap on a keyboard as I, editor in chief, watch the idea spread out in words as I also cook up the next, connecting idea, a glimpse of the miracle of this soft machine begins to take shape.

When you take it a step further and recognize that trillions of interactions, like breathing and digesting, continued simultaneously, it’s next to impossible to get the whole fantastic picture in your thoughts.

Internal Body Parts of a Human Being

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Cells In The Human Body As Poetry In Motion

You and I see ourselves as collections of macro objects: arms, legs, mouth, etc, connected but independent. In the musical Hair , Claude joyfully declares his body parts in the song, I Got Life.

For Claude and The Tribe, it’s an exclamation of discovery. We take it for granted when our legs carry us along above our cushioning feet and our arms swing or search for tunes on our iPods. Claude throws off shackles to proclaim his affection for the body he grew up in and the world around him wants him to stay silent about.

“I got my ass!” he sings in a happy phrase. We get the message that he won’t be taking it for granted any longer.

Cells In The Human Body, How We Change

Social networking and the immediacy of the Internet are changing the mechanics, but because evolution has protective filters, we will find ways to slow and smooth the bumps and grinds of change. The evolution of wisdom is too important to become a disorienting slug fest.

Returning to the microscopic interactions that make each of us possible physically, I want to dip sideways long enough mention the generally accepted estimate that ninety percent of the cells making up the fluid operations we think of as a human body are nonhuman cells.


I said, ‘Ninety percent of the cells that make up the operations known as you and me as we walk, talk, eat and sleep are not human.’ Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s really way more than ninety percent.

Bacteria in vast numbers perform the rituals of digestion in our intestines. Viruses and fungi exist comfortably on and under our skin. Organisms with there own non-human DNA assist in making foods usable for vital operations, providing bridges between dissimilar human and non-human cells. One reason we are not aware of being outnumbered is that the human cells are, on average, much bigger, and as a result, our bodies are more human than not in volume. Another is that we’ve grown accustomed to being most non-human in genetic make up. We’re just lucky our bodies are not democracies, one cell, one vote.

What we seem to be is a kingdom with a powerful monarch dispatching orders that are conveyed along chemical and electrical pathways, recognizing, organizing and maintaining the whole shebang, from the lowliest toenail to the highest impulse to search for gods.

This monarch gets no days off. He or she is not even granted the leisure of a quiet soak in the restorative waters. An interesting thing happens if he or she decides to quit. The rest of the kingdom collapses in rapid sequence. It comes to a chilly halt as all the operations cease, one by one.

Who Supervises All Those 50 Trillion Cells In The Human Body?

Who really is in charge here? When did we last order the bacteria in our small intestines to team up with our pancreases to digest lunch or to build the scaffolding known as our immune systems?

When did we tell the clusters of spongy cells that make up our brains to enact the process of changing connections to adjust for new thoughts and where to store fresh information and memories?

The greatest miracle of all may be that so much goes on–in fact, almost everything goes on–without our awareness or intervention. It’s one of those givens I mentioned in the beginning of this book. It all just works, as does the physical environment outside and connected to us. We touch, we feel, we hear, we see. All of it enters our brains in such an unstoppable deluge that, here we go again, we have evolved a method for dealing directly with only a litte bit of it.

Management by exception is an idea borrowed from our active minds. It’s why we have an unconscious anyway.

Forget how badly some of us already mismanage our conscious lives. How big a mess would it be if we were on autopilot with so much else.

A day may come when we have enough brain power and awareness to do much more, but we are many, many miles from that place now.

As it stands, our minds are gems of efficiency, managing interlocked systems of indescribable complexity. It’s as if we hired the perfect assistant, one who doesn’t bother us with any but the big things that we must know and decide about. The rest some assistant files and assigns without bothering our daydream, and life goes on.

On the other hand, if our brains have such incredible assistants, we still haven’t figured out who the boss is. After all, who threw that rock?

50 Trillion Cells In The Human Body is the seventh part of the 3rd Edition of A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World’s Happiest Man . We’re still in the first section: Morning.

David Stone, Writer


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