back to article Is it true my body is not entirely alive?

So you think you’re all alive? Think again. As strange as it may seem, the human body is not entirely "alive". A small part of us is not alive, never has been, and never will be. Ironically, what's not alive is vital to what is. Ninety-six per cent of the human body is alive. This part is composed of living, "organic elements" …


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  1. Allan Dyer

    Dr Stephen Juan is confused

    Dr Stephen Juan appears to be confusing "organis" and "alive", and he doesn't seem to know the first thing about chemistry...

    He referrs to "organic elements", apparently unware of the difference between an element and a compound.

    Any O-level Chemistry student should be able to tell you that "organic chemistry" is the study of carbon compounds, and "inorganic chemistry" is the study of compounds of all the rest of the elements. (Incidentally, i've always been surprised at the sale of "organic vegetables" - I would not try eating a carrot that did not contain carbon, chewing on a cone of, say, iron does not appeal)

    Being carbon-based lifeforms, organic chemistry is vitally important to us, but claiming that the iron atom in the haem group of haemoglobin is somehow "not alive" is riddiculous as claiming that the petrol in your car is alive because it contains hydrocarbons, an organic molecule.

    For a definition of "life", consult a competent biologist, don't ask Dr. Juan.

  2. Joze Sveticic


    It's a load of b*llocks, really. Sure, zinc is not organic. Zinc fingers, however, are very much so. (See for a rare case of Wikipedia being quite useful and accurate.)

    You cannot equate organic with living, and inorganic with non-living. A bottle of alcohol is very much organic, but not alive, unless you drink half of it and get into a funny mood.

    Of course, there are dead parts of the body, like hair and nails, but then again, that is nearly pure protein (keratin, to be precise), which is of course an organic compund.

  3. Hilary Curtis

    Complete and utter bollocks on stilts

    This is total crap. There's no such thing as 'living, "organic elements"'. The word "organic" has been hi-jacked by the organic food movement in such a way as to become largely meaningless, but scientifically it refers to COMPOUNDS based on a backbone of carbon and hydrogen and often (though not necessarily) including oxygen, nitrogen and/or other elements. Early chemists believed that such compounds could not be synthesised from non-organic starting materials in the lab, but could only be made by living organisms. We've known for yonks that this is baloney.

    So to say something is or is not alive has no meaning at the molecular level, and certainly none where elements are concerned.

    The definition of "life" can be tricky but is only meaningful when complex structures are viewed as a whole. For example, viruses (not the ITsort) don't have the capacity to reproduce other than via host-cell mechanisms, so it is meaningful to debate whether they're living organisms or merely micro-chemical factories. Human beings are complex organisms and the body of a living human is alive in its entirety. It includes sub-units (cells) which are also independently alive in that in the right conditions they can grow and reproduce when detached from rest of the body. It also includes sub-units (eg dead skin cells) which were once alive but aren't any longer. But it's a category error to describe molecular compounds or elements making up the human body as being either alive or not alive. They are neither.

    Hilary Curtis, MA PhD (Cantab, chemistry)

  4. David Choy

    Sensationalist story

    Honestly, I expect more from "The Register" than a story like this.

    "Is it true that my body is not entirely alive" is a waste of space article.

    If you didn't know that the ions and minerals in what you eat and drink are not alive, you're a moron. I think we all know they aren't cute little living creatures - otherwise the guys that market sea monkeys would be making a mint selling powdered supplements to children.

    If you didn't think you needed these ions and minerals, why drink them?

    I would suspect that Gatorade and powerade would have gone out of business by now if people honestly believe that (a) you need ions and minerals that are "not alive" and (b) that they are part of your body.

    Seriously, Dr. Juan, you can do alot better than this. Don't waste our time.

    Dr. David Choy

    RMO, Australia

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No, it is not true.

    It makes no sense to regard an element as "alive", or even to regard a protein or DNA molecule as "alive". In fact, many would not even regard viruses as alive. If we accept Dr Juan's concept then the haemoglobin molecule is alive, except for the four iron atoms it contains which are not alive, but without which the molecule as a whole has no biological function. This makes no sense.

    Bone which is largely hydroxyapatite, an inorganic calcium salt, is clearly dead, despite having a vital cellular component which is essential to maintaining the bone in a healthy condition.

    However, since Dr Juan states that "a small part of us is not alive" he clearly regards the water molecule - making up 60% of the body by mass - as alive. And if a water molecule in the body is alive, then surely a glass of water is also alive. I can't wait to see animal rights activists starting to protest about the cruel English habit of boiling water alive to make a cup of tea.

  6. Mike Kamermans

    Be careful when using science.

    While the statistical information in the article is rather evidently true, it appears that the fact that "alive" and "organic" are two completely unrelated concepts is somewhat forgotten; many compounds that we call "organic" are only labelled as such when generated by living things. However, nearly all organic compounds can (and are) also generated through inorganice processes in extreme condition environments such as for instance deep sea "smoke stacks" (this includes the generation of proteins, though it should of course be noted that the quantity generated under these conditions is far below the levels of what a living entity generates).

    The mistake made by the author (perhaps intentionally to make the article more "drastic" in its message ;) is really just a basic logic mistake; Given A => B (alive => organic matter), then B => A is not true by default, since B might also be the consequence of many other preconditions. In this case, calling organic matter alive or at one point alive foregoes the fact that the matter existed well before life itself (in the scientific sense) emerged.

    On a note to the author: due to the macrmolecular perspective of the "organic" lable it is impossible to say that something is inorganic merely because it has inorganic subcomponents. That's just poor scientific reasoning, try to avoid that in the future.

  7. Ben Hodgson

    What a load of Rubbish...

    As a Master's Student in Chemistry at the University of Bristol I'd just like to say, what a load of crap. The notion that atoms having a different makeup of sub-atomic particles (protons, neutrons, electrons) makes them either "living" or "dead" is stupid. Sure, some of the chemistry of the body involves atoms that are commonly thought of as "inorganic" rather than"organic" ("organic" atoms are mostly carbon, hydrogen and heteroatoms such as oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur) but the definitions of elements being either "organic" or "inorganic" is fluid at the very best, if not irrelevant.

    The TYPE OF CHEMISTRY involved is far more relevant. Yes elements of the chemistry of the body (such as that cited of the conformation of the heam groups around the iron centre of heamoglobin or the role of transition metals such as zinc in enzymes) can be traditionally thought of as "inorganic" but these boundaries in chemistry (organic/inorganic/physical/et.c.) are fast blurring and murging as we understand that the various sections all offer something to the models of chemical reactions, including those in the body and the bodies makeup.

    In short, "Dr Stephan Juan" (Dr of what, surely not a science, hotmail diploma?) maybe next time you try and dumb down some science to make it comprehendable to those who dont know that much about it you might like to read it BEFORE you publish it and check you havent written something stupid and untrue.

    And I was just reading elswhere on your (most excellent) website about "the farcical notion that the internet is somehow beneficial to education" (Andy Bright, Google's Grey Goo Article). I'm inclined to agree with him now. Please dont add to the problem El Reg.

    Ben Hodgson

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why would potassium be more "alive" than nitrogen

    Maybe I'm too much of an engineer, but I can't understand on what basis some chemical substances would be considered more "alive" than others. A pile of carbon looks just as "dead" as a pile of calcium.

  9. J

    Vitalism is still alive?

    "Organic" and "inorganic" in this context are semantic terms. In what sense is the iron atom in haemoglobin "dead" while the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen ones in it are "alive"?

  10. Leo Bjorkegren

    contains at least 4% drivel ....

    In what way is the iron in our bodies not alive? To the best of my knowledge it's an essential part of the haemoglobin contained in every red blood cell. Similarly, calcium is an essential part of the operation of nerve synapses. How are these elements any less 'alive' than hydrogen, oxygen or carbon? In fact, stating that a particular element is 'alive' or not sounds more like a slightly weird variant of vitalism than any sort of scientific opinion

  11. David Harper

    It's nonsense to talk about "living" elements and "non-living" elements

    Dr Juan may be an ace anthropologist, but he would fail a basic biochemistry exam if he believes that carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen are the only "living, organic" elements.

    He labels phosphorus as one of the "non-living, non-organic" elements, and yet it's an essential part of the "backbone" of every DNA molecule. Without phosphorus, Dr Juan's DNA (and that of every other living creaure) would literally fall apart.

    Phosphorus has been playing this vital role for four billion years. Surely it's earned the right by to join carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen on Dr Juan's elite club of "living" elements?

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Potassium seems to be pretty important. Keeping the heart beating regularly.

    But, Potassium chloride (commonly used for water softeners) is also part of the cocktail known to put criminals to sleep on a permanent basis. Apparently it stops the heart from beating.

    Certainly there is more to this than just eating the correct number of bananas each day.

  13. David Norfolk

    He's no chemist

    I know that Chemistry isn't as popular as it was when I got my Chemistry degree, but Dr Juan should really consider employing, or at least talking to, a qualified chemist! "Organic" chemicals aren't, technically, living, they are just those based on carbon (which, because it eaily forms rings and chains, has an extremely rich chemistry). As for "salts", what of the, perfectly respectable, salts of organic acids - are they "living" or "dead"?

    The distinction between "inorganic" and "organic" chemistry is pretty arbitrary and is largely a matter of convenience. Certainly, an organic chemical like polythene (polymerised ethylene) isn't more (or less) "alive" than inorganic chemicals like calcium phosphate or sodium chloride - or an organic "salt" like common hard soap (a mixture of sodium stearate, palmitate etc).

  14. David Hagan

    Very interesting, but its hardly news is it.

    I think the title says it all.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just plain cromulent.

    "Life" can't be ascribed to any individual atom or molecule. To think that corporeal ingredients are separated into living and nonliving based on their place on the periodic table seems awfully ignorant, especially for a PhD.

    I could just as easily dissect my car into "machine" and "not machine" parts based on what parts are metal. That would uncover an alerming trend: that over the years cars have been becoming less and less machine and more and more... ALIVE*! ROTM indeed.

    The author (intentionally?) mistook the true meaning of organic. It has nothing taxonomically to do with "life". This cromulent obfuscation embiggens no one.

    *That is using Dr. Juan's standard that any organic element is "alive".

  16. Alan Potter

    Stating the bleedin' obvious?

    I don't want to sound negative here, but I can't see the relevance of these blatherings from Dr. Stephen Juan in El Reg. Mostly they're blatently obvious - like we're composed of errr... chemicals... ( gosh! What about the other bits? Are they some strange matter that doesn't fit into the periodic table?

    It's as bad chemistry as the attitude that "natural" products don't contain "chemicals".

    And what does this have to do with IT anyway? Women taking their clothes off for some reason or other, or men removing their genitals is understandable. But giving an excuse for meconium? There is no excuse. It's foul and unforgiveable. Please give the good doctor something meaningful to do with his time.


  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Lighten up people!

    Hey, lighten up! Dr. Juan is writing for the generally moronic public, not the staff at Scientific American!

    Sheesh! Read him in context, OK? He is clearly using the word "element" in its perfectly fine sense of being another word for "thing."

    I thought the various ELEMENTS of DR. JUAN'S ARTICLE, while not technically perfect, made their point clearly.

    It all depends how one defines "alive" and at what macro or micro level one applies the definition.

    Give him a break.

  18. Toby Murcott

    So water is alive is it?

    While this is an interesting idea, that your body is partially not alive, the way it has been presented in this piece is palpable nonsense.

    What the good doctor has done is crudely and inaccurately classed organic compounds in the body as "alive" and in-organic as "dead". He has, rather weirdly, included water in the group of things that are "alive". Do you commit murder when you have a drink?

    If you took this definition of what is alive and dead then petrol would be very much alive, as would methane gas and good old fashioned ethanol, the intoxicant so many are familiar with.

    I love the line "A small part of us is not alive, never has been, and never will be". Actually EVERY small part of us is not alive and never has been. He describes the dead parts in terms of individual atoms or molecules. I know of no definition of life that calls any individual atoms or molecules alive, and that goes for DNA too. A DNA molecule is most emphatically not alive - it cannot do one of the most fundamental of living process, that is replicate itself. It needs to be part of a living cell to do that.

    If you were to take any of the elements he has called alive and separated them out they would no more be alive than some of the inorganic "dead" elements he has described. A molecule of protein is no more alive than an atom of iron, or sulphur. It is the combination of all of these components together that make up the organism. And its only the organism as a whole - or any part of it that can live an independent existence such as cells in tissue culture - that can be considered alive.

    There are more interesting and much more accurate ways of talking about the "aliveness" and "deadness" of a human body. For example, when you look at someone you only see dead cells, no live ones are visible on the surface of the human body. Every skin cell on the exterior of the body is well and truly dead - like, I hope, this article.

  19. Ben Hodgson

    Urm... now we've had bad editing as well as bad science...

    So... Scientists (mostly chemists i feel... so REAL scientists ;-) ) as a whole unite to *ahem* 'peer review' Dr Juan HMD (HotMail Dip.) and El Reg pulls the article... now now now... bit of a blunder but to try and cover it up like that is just naughty... its disappeared from the "The Odd Body" page and from the front page.


    For all those that missed Dr Juan's lovely ramblings... (and in case this gets put on the letters page...)

    Ben Hodgson

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