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Physiology, Physics, and the Force

By Chris Knight

What are Midi-Chlorians?
Midi-Chlorians and the Force
Force in the Family
Time, Space, and the Force
A Final, Force-ful Exit
Concluding Remarks

What Are Midi-Chlorians?

Midi-chlorians, as explained by the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas:

"Midi-chlorians are a loose depiction of mitochondria, which are necessary components for cells to divide. They probably had something--which will come out someday--to do with the beginnings of life and how one cell decided to become two cells with a little help from this other little creature who came in, without whom life couldn't exist. And it's really a way of saying we have hundreds of little creatures who live on us, and without them, we all would die. There wouldn't be any life. They are necessary for us; we are necessary for them. Using them in the metaphor, saying society is the same way, says we all must get along with each other."

If Lucas wanted to further the theme of symbiosis between life and the Force, he could not have found a more apt illustration than with mitochondria. Not only are mitochondria required for cell division, they're required for EVERYTHING in a cell! An analogous structure was needed between cells and the Force, and midi-chlorians fill that need. So perhaps we should look at the fact behind the fiction...

Here is an image from an electron microscope of a mitochondrion:


Mitochondria are an essential part of all living cells. They convert the nutrients (primarily carbohydrates and fatty acids) into adenosine triphosphate or ATP, the "energy currency" that your cells - and your entire body - operate on. In animals and humans, food consumed is broken down by the digestive system into its component substances, which are dispersed throughout the body by circulation. These substances osmose through cellular membranes and are converted as needed by the mitochondria into ATP. When energy is required by the cell, it's the ATP molecule's breakdown into adenosine diphosphate (ADP) that provides that energy, much like the internal combustion engine in your car. It also produces waste product... namely, the carbon dioxide that you exhale with each breath. With plants, the nutrients are taken from the soil by the root system and transported to the leaves, where chloroplasts in leaf cells take the sun's light energy and convert that into stored chemical energy, which is then used by the mitochondria. With plants, the production of energy is reversed from animals, with a benevolent "waste product": breathable oxygen. Animals (and humans) produce carbon dioxide for the plants, and plants produce oxygen for us... symbiosis on a global scale.

Mitochondria rank as the most unusual of the cell's organelles: the elements of the cell that are to it what your organs are to your body. They are the smallest, only being studied by higher-powered microscopes. They are among the most numerous: thousands may be crammed into the cell of heart tissue. Other organelles include ribosomes (used in protein production), endoplasmic reticulum (the cellular transport system), centrioles (utilized in cell division) and others, especially the nucleus. The nucleus is the "brain" of the cell. And within it, usually bundled in pairs of chromosomes, is the molecule DNA: the master code of an organism's being. It is the DNA that encodes protein composition in a complex process that ultimately decides the form and function of an organism entire.

But the nucleus isn't the only place in a cell that DNA is found... mitochondria have it too! And mitochondrial DNA has become a useful tool in fields ranging from cellular biology to some branches of archaeology. When a child is conceived, he or she receives mitochondria primarily from the mother, and this matrilineal passing of mitochondrial DNA, which generally stays the same from one generation to the next, has been used to trace migration and inter-marriage patterns. Recently the "Kennewick Man" skeleton found in Washington state was to be subjected to mitochondrial DNA analysis to determine his origin: speculation on this 9,000 year-old gentleman has him as everything from Ainu, the original inhabitants of the islands of Japan, to Caucasian. Because of the age and location of the skeleton, local Native Americans believe that Kennewick Man must be American Indian and are against testing his mitochondrial DNA. As of this writing the issue is still unresolved.

Mitochondrial Mayhem: Kennewick Man

Most organelles are formed during mitosis or by "budding off" from the nucleus. Not so mitochondria: with their own DNA, they replicate on their own... another hallmark of independent life. But a mitochondrion is far from being a "cell within the cell". It has been theorized that mitochondria began as simple bacteria which, engulfed by more complex cells, began producing energy for the cell in symbiosis. But some scientists point out problems with this classification: mitochondria have too specialized an internal structure when compared with true bacteria. And if the cell is so dependent upon mitochondria for metabolism, how did cells survive before the introduction of mitochondria?

Like so much else of science currently, the question is in a state of flux, brought on by new theories and particularly new mathematics. Scientists know these things happen, just now how exactly... yet. There are some gray areas that might not even be resolved in the lifetime of our grandchildren. Scientific philosophy is now closely following scientific fact in terms of importance.

All of which begs the question: mitochondria are part of microscopic life, but are they true microscopic life-forms? And in our study, should the midi-chlorians of Star Wars be considered true life-forms separate from their cells?

Science has never fully defined the microscopic limit of life. A cell is considered the basic unit of carbon-based life (the only kind we know of so far), but what about a virus? Viruses have no cells, only a protein sheathe protecting a core of DNA or RNA. They have nothing of metabolism, but they do reproduce by "invading" real cells and converting them into "virus factories", churning out more viruses and killing the cell. They can be "killed", by high temperature or chemicals, but usually by an organism's immune system (such as the lymphocytes and other white corpuscles that circulate in the blood stream). But are our cells defeating a real living enemy, or merely engulfing protein structures? To add to the confusion, in the last several years we have learned of prions: bits of protein often smaller than a virus. Smaller, but no less dangerous, prions are responsible for the "mad cow disease" that has plagued Europe recently, as well as other illnesses. Prion-caused disease is proving to be remarkably tough to fight, even moreso than those caused by viruses. Because of their makeup and effect on larger organisms, should prions then be considered alive?

Mid-way between cells and viruses, there are cell organelles. Curiously, organelles have never been considered to be autonomous living entities, because on their own they cannot survive. Take endoplasmic reticulum - the cell's "transport system" - out of the cell membrane, and all you have is a miniscule mess. Pluck out the nucleus and the cell dies. What about mitochondria? Our cells couldn't survive without them, and they're worthless without our cells. The same can be said for the nucleus... is that a "symbiont lifeform" now, or do we give mitochondria more legitimacy because of its DNA?

Qui-Gon Jinn spoke of midi-chlorians residing in all living cells: the classic definition of an organelle. Do we classify it as a separate life-form just because it's connected to the Force... and why would such a tiny thing be needed for the Force, anyway?!

Here's the paradox: if midi-chlorians are a microscopic life-form, and if life couldn't exist without them, then where did midi-chlorians come from? How did they become part of "all" cells? How did life exist before their coming into being? Qui-Gon tells Anakin that without midi-chlorians, life could not exist. The problem with that statement is that life flourishes across the galaxy on millions of worlds in the Star Wars saga, all of which possess midi-chlorians. Did midi-chlorians arise spontaneously on ALL worlds then, "infecting" every lifeform? That would be a statistical improbability that most science-fiction would avoid. How did one lifeform come about in precisely the same way on planets so wildly different? And even given the miracle of hyperspace, it would have taken thousands of years for midi-chlorians to have spread from one point of origin to all known life... a period of time that all life would have been dead long before because they lacked midi-chlorians. How would life arise without them?

Then again, we might be headed entirely in the "wrong" direction if we're looking to mitochondria to answer our questions about midi-chlorians. Despite all the knowledge we've gained on cells, there are some things about them that we still do not understand. There is some evidence to support the existence of "micro-bacteria" on a scale with the mitochondria. And some kinds of microscopy used in studying living tissue have examined particles in human blood, the function of which are still unknown! Might these be our "midi-chlorians"?

Whatever they might be, Qui-Gon's statement to Anakin implies that midi-chlorians are ubiquitous to life. Obi-Wan explained to Luke that the Force was created by all living things. Between these two facts, a theory lends itself. What if, instead of midi-chlorians create sensitivity to the Force, the Force creates midi-chlorians?

Continued next page

Concepts in these pages are derived from material created by Lucasfilm Ltd. and George Lucas. While these pages discuss Star Wars, they are NOT to be considered "canon". This is merely a theory. As for the true nature of midi-chlorians, as Mark Hamill once said, "only George knows." Most of the ideas presented here are my original thoughts about midi-chlorians to the best of my knowledge but some, such as theoretical physics and Kirlian photography, are in the province of those who discovered them. Otherwise, the layout, structure, and interpretation in these pages is Copyright ? 2000 Chris Knight and TheForce.net.

Got questions? Comments? Suggestions? Think Chris has WAY too much time on his hands? Let us know!

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