Sunday, 1 April 2012

The explosive, moving, crushing, slightly depressing, exciting reality of the cell (and how it's a bit like a red Ferrari).

My first wheels.
My first experience of driving a car was totally reckless. At top speed I mounted the kerb, grinning at passers-by as I slammed into a wall. I then leapt out of the seat, vaulted the wall, and ran off in search of criminals.

Granted, I was pretending to be Magnum P.I at the time and had a top speed of how fast a 3 year-old can scoot along whilst sitting down. But the thought was there: this is easy, let’s open this baby up on a slope, see what she can do.

When I finally got behind the wheel (of a Ford Escort, not a Ferrari), some 15 years later, the reality came as quite a shock - there were gears, and brakes and stuff to check and top-up. So many things to remember when I just wanted to screech around the place - and this was all before I’d even looked under the bonnet/hood. But, like everyone else I learnt, because... well, that’s the reality if you want to drive.

The depressing reality of the car (but beautiful to some)
When I first looked down a microscope at some cells, I was similarly astonished. These cells weren't all the same shape or size, they weren't staying still, in fact they were twanging around the place. And inside? Inside it looked like complete chaos. 
The cell in front of me was a microscopic machine: millions of proteins crashing together and breaking apart; some were building the cell from within, or acting as scaffolding, or fighting infection, or making copies of DNA before ripping the enitre cell neatly in two every 24 hours.
The GCSE cell, simplified but still correct.
(Credit BBC Bytesize 2011)
Our cells are full of moving parts. And if we want to fix them when they go wrong, such as when a cell becomes cancerous, we first need to understand how they work - how all these parts are wired together. It's quite a daunting and slightly depressing challenge - how on earth do we go about it?

One way is to work on smaller pieces of the cell first. Just as a mechanic will work on the exhaust system, the electrical system and the cooling system of an engine, cell biologists might specialise in the p53 DNA damage system, the NF-kappaB sgnalling system or the cell cycle.

In the end, would-be cell biolgists face a choice - to look at the horrific, awe-inspiring complexity of the cell's wiring and either run screaming or accept that there's lots to see, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty!
The horrific, but beautifully complex, wiring of the cell.
Up to you... do you want to know more?
Download this poster as a PDF from Cell Signalling.
In future posts I'll tell you how scientists have looked under the cell's bonnet/hood, what they've found out about its systems and their wiring, and what the future might hold...

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