- Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On Cells and Molecules

This site is all about explaining the inner workings of biological cells—the simplest system to exhibit all the characteristics of life

Many people (even serious biologists) tend to picture cells and molecules like a well-ordered, spacious factory. Most biology textbooks perpetuate this misconception by diagramming their examples in a highly simplified manner. The following video exemplifies the cartoon models we often use to explain biology.

Although on it's surface it seems helpful to picture things in this simple way, it actually leads to some serious confusion that makes it hard to evaluate biological models and their applications. For example, when picturing a well-ordered factory-like cell, it seems natural that problems like cancer or infectious diseases could be explained by one of those machines breaking down. Unfortunately, years of research has shown us that focusing on the individual machines isn't really always good enough.

The Problem: Cells Are a Crowded Mess

The real picture of biology is more complicated due to the overwhelming disorder of the cell. Cells look less like factories and more like unorganized mobs in a packed stadium. These tiny bags of billions of molecules operate by jostling with each other in densely crowded compartments. This video shows a computational simulation of the molecules inside just a tiny fraction of just one bacterium.

As you can see, real life cells are crowded messes of lots of different proteins. It's completely astonishing that anything ever gets done in there. Unlike in the simplified "factory-like" picture above, here, every individual protein simply bumps into every surrounding protein trying to perform it's individual task. The aggregate behavior comes from these individual actions without any central authority directing operations.

This is why people are beginning to describe cells as complex systems, a realm of science where our intuitive understanding of "If A, Then B" breaks down. In a complex system, nobody can really understand everything that's going on at once. And when this happens we have to start making simplifications and introducing abstract models to encapsulate complexity. Although this idea has been in use in the engineering and computer science communities for decades, modeling complex systems is still just beginning in cell and molecular biology related fields.

TECH VIVO is setting out to make these kinds of abstract models more interesting and understandable to people who aren't familiar with complex systems modeling. It seems like it's going to be increasingly difficult to understand biological ideas without developing layers of abstraction to make these complicated ideas more manageable.

So the next time someone shows you a simplified cartoon of how a cell works, you might want to ask, "What would it really look like if I were swimming with those molecules?"

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