03 May 2006

Why I'd Make a Terrible Father

As I mentioned earlier, Beth and I spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning with my mother and my sister, who has a now-six-month old baby (cute pictures here) named Camden, who is cute and adorable and endlessly watchable even when he's not feeling well due to tubes having been put in his ears, as was the case over the weekend. Now, I can't say I'm overly fond of children in general, having a general preference for the intellectual and social world of adults, but Camden's a cute kid, and I can certainly imagine feeling more love for the little brats when (or if) I ever have one of my own.

So anyway, Camden was lying on the floor Saturday night kicking at one of his toys, when a bit of drool escaped from the side of his mouth. Being the good uncle (and having a napkin handy) I wiped the fluid from the side of his mouth, cleaned his face in general, then started thinking:

I wonder when babies start to produce amylase?

A bit of explanation is at hand. Enzymes are macromolecules (proteins, actually) that act as catalysts to allow high-energy chemical reactions to take place in relatively low-energy regions, such as the human body. For instance, the body "burns" sugars in the muscles through the breaking off of phosphate groups from ATP molecules -- an enzyme binds to the phosphate group and removes it with what's known as a dehydration reaction to "burn" the molecule, while in ordinary circumstances the energy required to burn off that bit of energy would require temperatures far in excess of what the human body could stand. Enzymes are not magical chemicals -- far from it -- but they are one of the things that make life fairly unique in the universe, and much of the study of biochemistry is really the study of enzymes.

Amylase is an enzyme found in saliva (and in the pancreas, but that's another issue) that binds with certain chemical bonds in starches and breaks them down into molecules that are usable in the production of energy and proteins by the organism. (It is of course aided by digestive enzymes in the stomach and intestines, but that's a bit out of field here.) In my Intro to Biology course at UAH, one of our labs involved placing ground up cereal grains into a solution of water and amylase, and oberving the carbon dioxide produced by enzymmatic action. In the lab, we used professionally-obtained (or perhaps synthesized) amylase, but in theory could have simply used our own saliva to break down the cereal, although saliva contains other enzymes as well.

My curiosity, then, was at what age amylase was produced by the human body, in particular by the salivary glands. I was struck by the incredible urge to collect a few milliliters of Camden's saliva (not difficult, I assume, given the production of fluids by babies) and an equal amount of my own, mix each with some cereal or some other starch (like crackers) and place them both next to a control and a timer. And I might have done exactly that, except that the child's mother and grandmother were sitting right there playing with their baby and otherwise being perfectly normal, well-adjusted individuals, and might have taken offense to my doing strange experiments with their child's saliva.

How easy would it be to imagine me using one of my own children as a little walking, talking microbiology lab, blithely ignoring their needs so that I could satiate my own curiosity regarding their development in a hands-on, somewhat-controlled way? I have no doubt that I'll soon end up living up to the self-given moniker "Weird Uncle Daniel" anytime now.

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