When you get sick, your body’s immune system springs into action to fight off any sickness you have. Special cells called white blood cells are constantly fighting off any virus or infection to keep the body safe. When you have any sort of sickness, your white blood cell count elevates which is why doctors order a CBC (complete blood count) for diagnosis.
White blood cells are produced in the bone marrow and stay in the blood and lymphatic tissue. Because of their short lives, white blood cell production is continuous. There are many types of white blood cells- monocytes (break down bacteria), lymphocytes (make antibodies), neutrophils (primary infection fighter), basophils (help regulate the response to an “invader), and eosinophils (kill parasites and even cancer cells).
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Researchers haven’t ever had a clear image of the process of how blood cells differentiate into the different types (white and red). When blood cells are first formed, they can differentiate into either of the two types. Environmental factors affect this process. Let’s say you get the flu. When new blood cells are forming, the chance of them differentiating into white blood cells is higher due to its need. When the body makes more white blood cells, this leads to a dramatic decrease in the amount of red blood cells. A decrease in red blood cells can be dangerous because it can cause anemia. Anemia leads to a decrease in the amount of oxygen that is brought to different parts of the body such as the brain and heart (this is why anemia causes dizziness and fast or irregular heartbeat).
Researchers decided to test the Bach1 and Bach2 transcription factors in an experiment that involved mice. These factors help regulate immune system cells. The researchers noticed that when the mice experienced infection, these transcription factors were being expressed less.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Now you may ask, why does this research even matter? The findings from the experiment can help hematologists discover how environmental factors change our gene expression. Gene expression is crucial in the sense of blood related diseases. Doctors can explore the causes of diseases and how to regulate the effects of the environmental factors to develop new treatment options.
The concept of cell differentiation is something that we learned in class when discussing pluripotent versus totipotent stem cells and embryonic and somatic stem cells. Differentiation is a crucial process in development and can help us learn how to make more treatment options for illnesses such as diabetes. In the instance of the cells of the immune system, cell differentiation can happen multiple times because of the sub-cell “types” of white blood cells. Differentiation is also very important because it is also affected by environmental factors such as bacteria and infection.
The topic of environmental factors affecting gene expression has been discussed in class as well. Even though we inherit our genes from our parents, it is how they react to the environment that decides gene expression. This is evident in how the body reacts to illness. According to The Smithsonian, genes can change due to illness. If our genes change due to getting sick and producing more white blood cells, it affects our physiology/gene expression later as adults. Due to this and the recent findings regarding the Bach1 and 2 transcription factors, scientists are working harder than ever to utilize this information for later findings.