Thursday 3 November 2016

A smell of bones

At The Institute most years I get to teach a couple of lab sections of Cell Biology - biology basics for Sporty People. We have tried to make the experiments interesting and relevant to an education in Strength & Conditioning or Sports Rehab. When I started back in 2013, we had a practical which required the kids to make an interpretive drawing of a long bone such as a humerus or femur. The technician was required to go to a convenient butcher and ask that craftsman to cut a selection of bones in half longitudinally with his band-saw. This shows the internal structure of the bone: the compact bone on the exterior surface; the cancellous/spongy bone inside where the structure is part engineering / scaffolding and part bone marrow; the marrow-filled central channel. If you try to relate the structure to the multiple functions that bone has to fulfill, the exercise can be informative and interesting. Ye functions of bone:

  • Calcium store: calcium ions essential for nerve and muscle activity
  • Protecting the wobbly bits: skull rib-cage
  • Attachment for muscles for movement: each muscle has attachment points on at least two bones
  • Production of blood cells in the bone marrow: the hollow cylinders required for engineering are repurposed as a blood factory

But after a couple of years, for health & safety reasons, band-saws were banned in retail butchers. [video one slip or three inches from disaster] Because we found, at short notice,  that the technician couldn't get the bones as longitudinal sections, last year we cancelled that part of the bone practical and made up a work-around involving toilet rolls. This year, I was assured that the butchers in town were unable to supply bones of any sort.  Butchers seem in recent years to have shed the craftsman label and moved strictly into retail, the lumps of meat are cut up off site and delivered to the shop early every day.  If you want something beyond steaks, chops and hamburger you're either out of luck or obliged to order in advance your lamb-shanks or scrag-end. When we set up down the country you could deliver your pet lamb to any of the local butchers and they would kill, dress and butcher Flossie or Oscar and deliver the meat back to you in parts.Not any more: no licence.

Anyway, I couldn't believe it was impossible to get a bag of bones from the butcher and on my way home from work three weeks ago I dropped into O'DuĂ­nne's of Bagenalstown and Nolan's of Borris and asked each for 20 miscellaneous leg-bones to be collected early on Monday morning. And it was so. I picked up two bags of bones on my way to work, they were worked on by the students through the week and everyone saw, handled and drew the material. Did someone mention saw? I brought in a panel-saw to class and cut some of the bones through at an acute angle so that most of the interior differences were made visible. I was probably in contravention of an EU directive about BSE or safety-in-the-workplace by doing this, but I'm not about to shop myself.

At the end of the week we had a family shindig down in Waterford and I got to hang out with all my offspring. On Saturday, when I was ferrying part of the family into town, Dau.II spoke out with "Blimey, it smells like a trawler in here, what have you been picking up off the beach now?". I'm not totally insensitive; I had noticed the unaccountable pong; but had put it down to a few pieces of wet drift-wood or some rogue sea-weed. More careful investigation, however, revealed the knuckle end of a bone which had fallen from the butcher's bag and under the back seat of the car. After an unseasonably warm final week in October, my red Yaris smelled, as we say, a bit shonky. [Pun alert: I vs II]

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