Healthy blood cells take the form of round concave discs. An inherited mutation can, however, cause a proportion of them to develop into sickle-shaped cells. Individuals who inherit the sickle-cell gene from both parents suffer severe anaemia and have a shorter life expectancy. Getting the gene from only one parent, comes with the advantage of resistance to malaria, so the mutation is quite common in West Africa. So-called ‘carriers’ have a much smaller proportion of distorted red blood cells, which the parasite cannot easily infect. However, the flipside is a risk of collapse, or even sudden death, when performing strenuous physical activity. Rising adrenaline levels can cause sickle-shaped cells to clump, blocking blood flow to vital organs. This topographic image of a red blood cell from a carrier was created using atomic force microscopy. Finding causes of potentially fatal red blood cell clumping opens the field for new treatments.
Written by Andrew Purcell
BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences (the new name for the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre) the website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biomedicine. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.