Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

The alien landscape of your cells

Jessica over at bioephemera alerted the world that the GE Healthcare IN Cell Imager photo contest winners had been announced.  And looking through these photos sent chills down my spine.  (I was eating ice cream simultaneously… But, no, it was probably the pictures.)

As you can see, the pictures show various patterns of fluorescence.  A scientist can selectively stain parts of cells with fluorescent markers  – using antibodies, for example – to study their locations, or even use the brightness to measure the amounts.  (In the lab I’ve used fluorescent antibodies to stain protein residues, and I could even see the brightness without film or a microscope in a dark room.)

This here on the left is a picture of brain tissue.  The blue parts are its DNA, while the green and red are two types of neurons, or brain cells.  They’re all stringy and tangled looking so that signals can be transmitted quickly through the brain.  I’m a sucker for pictures of neurons because they look so alien compared to normal cells.

But, truly, all life on the cellular level is alien.  That’s part of what is so inspiring about viewing image collections such as this one: how can we imagine that this is what is going on inside of us?

It took me 6 years of studying biology before I truly understood that CELLS MAKE UP MY BODY.  I know, it seems like an obvious fact.  But it’s one thing to read a biology textbook and label a drawing of the parts of a cell, and another to fully grasp the concept that trillions of these things compose my body, undergoing processes of which I am completely unaware.  That once I was one cell – and now not only do I contain multitudes, but many different types.

I want to share my first moment of this realization with you.  I was a sophomore in college taking a genetics course with my main man, Stephan Zweifel.  To be perfectly honest, I was completely overwhelmed by the class.  (The thought of two DNA strands overlapping and switching their genes in a cell was way too much for me to grasp at the time.)  But one day he showed us a video put out by Harvard showing the life inside of a cell.  Maybe it was the mesmerizing music, but I was drawn in entirely, struck simultaneously by two emotions.  The first was horror at my inability to follow the video, identify a single molecule, while my classmates called them out around me.

But the horror quickly dissolved into complete and utter awe.  I sat there slack-jawed as molecules assembled and disassembled themselves into elegant stalks (actin and microtubules, the beam-like skeleton supporting the cell), a bow-legged molecule hobbled along a pole dragging a huge, watery balloon behind it (a motor protein guiding a vacuole to the transportation center of the cell), and proteins suddenly stood up erect, as if for the first time (a dramatic conformational change).  It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what was happening or why.  All I knew is that something complex was happening on screen, and that these things happened inside of me.  Constantly.  And I had never noticed.

How could my own body be so alien?  I could have been watching a sci-fi film.  And it hit me: there is beauty on this small scale.  There is art that had been perfected for billions of years, that continues to evolve.  And I had the tools to understand it if I could only apply them.

And that’s how I began my journey to try to become a science dilettante.

But seriously, folks.  Look at lots of pictures and movies about cells and molecules.  Get totally freaked out about your body and its alien landscape.  Take comfort in the fact that no one will ever fully understand it and find joy in being overwhelmed by all the things we don’t know.  That’s what being a scientist is about, as far as I’m concerned.

GE Analyzer IN Cell Photo Competition 2010
GE Analyzer IN Cell Photo Competition 2009
Harvard’s Inner Life of a Cell (music)
Harvard’s Inner Life of a Cell (narration)

Written by Hanner

April 27, 2010 at 6:10 am

Posted in Art, Link, Reflection

2 Responses

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  1. That inner life of the cell video blew me away as well, first saw it as a first year university student. it was so beautiful, so complex and amazing, like another little world.

    Lab Rat

    April 27, 2010 at 8:43 am

  2. I had the same experience, Hannah and Lab Rat =). At the end of a (not-so exciting) course on cell biology, the cell suddenly came to life. I suddenly realized that our cells are microcosms in their selves, coordinated, beautiful and awesome. That single movie triggered an understanding that the entire course could never approach.


    April 27, 2010 at 9:39 am

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