Let's just say that I decided to take some poor, perfectly healthy human being and instantaneously remove a bunch of cells, maybe 5%, from their body. I would remove the cells evenly, so that you would have 95% of red blood cells left, 95% of the number of brain cells, etc. Effectively, they would be 5% lighter. Only living cells would be affected, not water or ingested molecules.

For the purposes of this question, I could accomplish this in two ways: replace the cells with some noble element that (hopefully) wouldn't interfere with the body, or just simply remove them and leave some empty space where a cell used to be.

What would happen either way, and could our test subject hope to survive at all?

  • $\begingroup$ There are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body[according to this smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/… and 5 percent of that is approx 0.186 trillion cells. Btw did you know that 5% of the human body is not the same as 5% of the RBC and 5% of the brain cells and everything else combined? To be honest you test subject should be able to live if it was the first case and not the 5% everything. Which is answered well by Dr Bob $\endgroup$ – Skye Sep 12 '16 at 7:39
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    $\begingroup$ There appears to be no worldbuilding aspect to this question; it seems appropriate for either the Biology SE or the proposed What-If SE. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Sep 12 '16 at 12:18

They'd probably die.

You take 5% of my subcutaneous fat cells? No problem. Free liposuction!

You take 5% of my retinal cells? Suddenly I have teeny blind spots all over my vision. If you take 5% of the cells in my fovea, my ability to discern detail (such as reading this text) degrades.

You take 5% of my intestinal wall? Bacteria and other noxious stuff will be leaking from my gut into my body cavity. Peritonitis here we come!

You take 5% of my brain cells? You will be disrupting all sort of vital functions.

You take 5% of my artery walls? Holes all over my body, where blood is leaking out. The plasma will be able to get through a cell-sized hole, even if the red blood cells can't.

You take 5% of my heart muscle cells? Heart function abruptly impaired.

I'd most likely go into shock and die.

If you use your 'noble element' (do you mean a noble gas???) it would have to be handwavium on steroids. It would have to be recognised by the cells around it, so that they can stick to it to plug the holes. It would have to have myriad functions - be able to contract like a heart muscle cell, be rigid like a bone cell, keep bacteria out of the body like a skin cell, etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ Alright, I'll scrap the "noble element" handwave that I was thinking of. I just put it there in case removing matter from the area would cause physics to collapse or something $\endgroup$ – user10933 Sep 12 '16 at 8:07
  • $\begingroup$ "rigid like a bone cell" - as far as I remember, bone cells are rather soft. Sure, they create hard net, but on their own they are squishy little fellows. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Sep 12 '16 at 9:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Molot Yeah you're right. I had the 'cellular' image of cross sections thru bone in my head and forgot most of that is non-living tissue. $\endgroup$ – DrBob Sep 12 '16 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ Playing with a broken teleporter again, are we? $\endgroup$ – Turion Sep 12 '16 at 14:07

Acute radiation sickness

This is what a heavy dose of ionizing radiation does to you: it kills a bunch of cells in your body, randomly and evenly distributed. The radiation smashes DNA so much that the DNA repair systems cannot keep up, which disrupts the cell function so much that the cell dies. Unless you have been subjected to a point source, or breathed dust, or eaten something that accumulates in a specific organ (I-131 gathers in the thyroid), then being subjected to a dose of radiation is probably entirely equivalent of what you just proposed.

Now I cannot tell you what kind of percentage is needed to make you feel ill. Do note that being subjected to radiation is something that happens to us every day, every second of our lives. The dose makes the damage. A small dose we do not even notice. A medium dose will make us ill but we will survive and get a somewhat elevated risk of cancer in 10-20 years time. A heavy dose will kill us in a week. And an extreme dose (i.e. hugging a freshly shut down nuclear power core) will make us fall where we stand.

But I do know which organs are hit the hardest once we reach the threshold for ARS: the gastrointestinal tract. Muscles, skin, skeleton are not very bothered about this, but the soft squishy insides of your body does not fare well when cells die.

5% does not sound like much though. For an average human being is a loss of about 4-5 kg of body mass. When evenly distributed, that probably is not so bad. So 5% is most likely survivable.

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    $\begingroup$ But the OP seems to be taking 5% per organ system or tissue type, not 5% evenly distributed. I'd be happy to lose 5kg of body mass if it was evenly distributed, as probability says most of that will be body fat and muscle mass - so my brain wouldn't take much of a hit. I'd be extremely unhappy to lose 70g of brain! (5% of 1400g). $\endgroup$ – DrBob Sep 12 '16 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ @DrBob I am sorry but you are not making any least bit of sense here. 5% per organ or 5% evenly distributed across the entire body is the exact same thing. If you have something that consists of parts, and you take 5% of every part, then that is the exact same thing as if you took 5% of the whole and distributed that loss evenly, because that will also be 5% on every part. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Sep 12 '16 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ Actually no. Various substances have different mass, so what measure are you using for 5%? "Evenly" is not a quite a precise qualifier. That may work in mathematics, but when you apply it to biology, you suddenly need a whole lot of extra qualifiers to make the 5% apply correctly. Also, 5% of each system or cell type will affect said system differently; some systems are much more tolerant of loss. 5% of brain tissue? Oh, let's just take it all from the cerebral cortex, or the spot where the brain joins the spine, they won't miss that.... (sarcasm intended humorously) $\endgroup$ – nijineko Sep 12 '16 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ @nijineko The things that are most vital to us are roughly the same density so whether it is 5% by mass or 5% by volume matters little. Also I did say "evenly distributed" which negates what you just said about the cells disappearing in spots / clumps. If that was the case — that the disappearance would be selective / directed — then we would not even need to lose a millionth of the body weight to kill a person. Just dissolving the cells along a thin line of a few centimeters in the walls of the aorta would kill a person in a few seconds flat. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Sep 12 '16 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ I mentioned that evenly distributed is not a precise enough qualifier, just those words themselves, to actually work. Due to the varying density of the body, and the numerous types of systems, and the numerous types of cells, the term "evenly" needs to be better defined. For example, your response to my comment seems to indicate volume as your measurement for even, which does not seem clear to me from the question. Also the usage of "randomly" in the OP invalidates thinking that a random selection won't wind up in a clump somewhere specific. $\endgroup$ – nijineko Sep 12 '16 at 14:15