by Caroline Crocker, PhD
The latest AITSE presentation is on cells, the smallest and simplest unit of matter that can still be considered alive. Those things that Darwin’s contemporary Huxley described as simple bags of protoplasm and those integrated systems that origin of life researchers posit spontaneously arose from the primordial soup or something of the sort. And, as a cell biologist, those self-same units that challenge, fascinate, and inspire me.
So, what are cells and why would I say they are beautiful? After all, they aren’t even visible. The smallest cell, a mycoplasm, is just 0.0001 mm in diameter. The smallest human cell, a sperm, is 30 times larger. The largest human cell, an egg, is 0.12-0.15 mm in diameter, and theoretically is visible to the naked eye. But, according to Bruce Alberts PhD of UCSF, contained in this microscopic piece of nature–so small that it takes about 50-75 trillion to make just one person–is “an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of large protein machines.”
Personally, I find it easier to just describe the cell in terms of a city and this is what is done in the new presentation. Harvard University has produced an amazing animation of the events inside this city. Take some time to watch and enjoy. As a cell biologist I can assure you that all these things really happen.
Scientists are only scratching the surface in our understanding of cells, but we already know that most cells contain the equivalent of government buildings (the nucleus and genetic material), factories (ER and ribosomes), processing plants (Golgi), recycling facilities (lysosomes), power stations (mitochondria), mail service (vesicles), roadways (endoskeleton), border patrol (cell membrane) and much, much, more. The efficiency with which these organelles (organs in cells) work puts our machines to shame. In fact, many scientists are now looking to nature for help in how to design new and better technologies. More about the amazing systems within the cell can be found in Free to Think: Why Integrity Matters. Or, invite me to speak at your next function and find out all about cells the easy way!
My personal favorite cellular system is protein synthesis: the way that the cell takes only the necessary information from the blueprints stored in the government offices, makes copies of that information, laminates and checks the message, transports it to the factory, makes the machine part, checks and sends the machine part to the processing plant, has the parts assembled into fully operational machines and loaded into correctly addressed containers for transport to the correct destination, has the container transported along roadways that assemble themselves, and installs the machine where it needs to be to function. All without a foreman. Amazing! And beautiful.
What does all this say about evolution, which is said to proceed by random mutations in the genetic material (blueprints) leading to better adapted organisms and eventually, apparently, to increased information in the cell? What does it say about abiogenesis, the idea that cells arose spontaneously from nonliving material? What does it say about intelligent design which points out that, in our experience, systems that are both highly complex and specified are designed by intelligent beings? A lot. But to find out more you will need to hear the presentation. Book Dr. Crocker today!