Functional Simplicity from Physical Complexity

February 8, 2012 at 8:11 am 1 comment

Biology can be pretty daunting sometimes.  So many different molecules that carry out different functions, all with very similar names and subnames (actin/actinin, alpha-catenin/beta-catenin/cadherin, fibrin/fibrinogen/fibronectin/fibroblast, Myosin-1/…Myosin-infinity).  Literature reviews can easily turn into an exercise in correct pronunciation, where we all mimic 5-year olds trying to say “hippopotamus”.  Thank goodness we don’t have to constantly talk about 1-52-6-7-cyclo-dodecyl-11-triphospho-pentahydroxide, at least….

In all seriousness though, biology is extremely exquisite.  Something I heard from Drew Endy (Stanford BioE) was that biology can be described as functional simplicity from physical complexity.  This struck me as interesting, because I’ve often heard people refer to their favorite molecule in the following way: “If we humans didn’t have this or if this didn’t work properly, we would be a big blob of goop….” Hmm, now is that so?  Or is biology more complicated than that.  Probably.  But we don’t know details, so we adopt this mickey-mouse apocalyptic scenario if our favorite molecule didn’t exist.  When I lift my arm while working out (yeah, ok, I never said I had to tell the truth on these things), it’s that simple right?  There aren’t hundreds of little myosin motors generating force for muscle contraction; there isn’t constant remodeling of the muscle tissues?  Well there are, and we as scientists know it.  But we know through experiments where we mix 2 invisible liquids together and observe bands move up or down on a gel.  And with this information, we create in our heads animations of what we believe is occurring on the molecular scale.  Now what do our animations look like?

Here are some Ted Talks (Drew Berry, David Bolinsky), where molecular animators describe biological processes using scientifically accurate (and entertaining!) animations to help researchers (and their grandmothers) see unseeable processes within our own cells.  The Drew Berry talk has the animation of DNA replication I linked in my first article and also chromosome separation in mitosis with all the motors zipping around.  The David Bolinsky’s 3-minute animation (near the end) is like watching the final battle scene in (pick your favorite epic movie).  I’ve linked the full animation titled “The Inner Life of the Cell” below.

Enjoy everyone!

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Diego  |  February 8, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Interesting. I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at, but I do agree with the fact that we shouldn’t be satisfied with knowledge that we currently have about science and assume that nothing occurs outside of that box. Especially in biology. I’m sure that even for the enzymes involved in metabolic pathways that have been studied to death there has to be a dimension that has been neglected and we could take advantage of for a useful purpose. Also relevant: a wise postdoc reminded me last week that one of the great mechanisms that life uses to preserve itself is redundancy. Whether it be through the genetic code or through proteins/chemical reactions/limbs that can compensate for unfavorable conditions. Hopefully we can act more like mother nature and do a better job of that for things like finding alternative energy sources.

    Reply

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