Friday, March 28, 2008

The big C

The men in my family are prone to prostate cancer, so I keep close tabs on my own prostate. What am I looking for? Here is a microphotograph of prostate cancer cells, from the Wellcome Trust's annual scientific image competition. Other images among this year's winners are also of cancer cells. Granted the colors are computer enhanced, but one sees a kind of beauty in these micro landscapes of death. As we explore the world of the invisibly small, we discover a majesty and mystery as great as anything we find among the distant galaxies.

"Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror," wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. This is the pretty army of cells that escaped from my father's prostate at age 64 and infiltrated his entire body. He fought them with every instrument at his disposal. His journals from his final weeks are full of quantitative data, graphs, theories. He was a scientist to the end, but no match for the simple power of life itself. If you visit the Wellcome Trust image page, make sure you watch the computer animation of cellular machinery spinning out the fabric of life. Sometimes to our dismay the spinning gets out of control.

Meanwhile, Anne has given us a link to a wonderful animation of the molecular machinery of a cell in action. I have tried to describe this stuff before in words--
Now here comes the really astonishing part.

All that DNA -- those hundreds of trillions of wads of thread -- is not just sitting there, static. As you read this essay, a flurry of activity is going on in every cell of your body.

Tiny protein-based "motors" crawl along the strands of DNA, transcribing the code into single-strand RNA molecules, which in turn provide the templates for building the proteins that build and maintain our bodies. Other proteins help pack DNA neatly into the nuclei of cells and maintain the tidy chromosome structures. Still other protein-based "motors" are busily at work untying knots that form in DNA as it is unpacked in the nucleus and copied during cell division. Others are in charge of quality control, checking for accuracy and repairing errors.

Working, spinning, ceaselessly weaving, winding, unwinding, patching, repairing -- each cell like a bustling factory of a thousand workers. Ten trillion cells humming with the business of life.
--but the animation does it ten times better.