Thursday, April 04, 2013

Job and the whirlwind


Started to toss out this 7 December issue of Science and took another long look at the cover. What is this thing? Whatever it is, it is beautiful (click to enlarge).
End-on view of the atomic model of the bacterial actinlike ParM protein double-helical filament, generated from an electron microscopic reconstruction. A bipolar spindle of antiparallel ParM filaments pushes plasmids to the cell poles, constituting the simplest known apparatus for the segregation of genetic information. The loops on the outside of the 8- to 9-nanometer-thick filaments are involved in spindle formation.
So we are looking at a computer-generated, artificially-colored, schematic representation of molecular machinery that assures genetic information will be properly copied and allotted to daughter cells when a cell divides by binary fission. The cell, in this case, is E. coli, a common bacterium of the human gut that is generally benign.

How big? One-hundred thousand of what you see above could line up across the period at the end of this sentence.

Is it fair to call this stuff "machinery"? Why not? The authors of the article in Science do. Nature invented machinery before we did. Are we ourselves just big, hugely complex molecular machines? Are we seeing in the image above a smidgen of the human soul? That's for you to decide, but as for me, I have no problem at all. The protein filament pictured above inspires in me a lot more awe than the images of angelic spirits that decorated my youth.

But you protest: Isn't it demeaning of human nature to suppose that we are just windstorms of molecules spinning and weaving, atoms coalescing and disengaging, ParM filaments pushing plasmids.

And I say: Wow! Fabulous! Especially the more we learn about it.

Molecular machines who think and love and make art and science. Molecular machines who delight in beer and pizza, have sex, sing and dance. Molecular machines who wonder about the meaning of it all, and find stunning beauty in an end-on view of a ParM filament. Molecular machines who can figure out what's going on in cells smaller than the point of a pin.

If it is true that I am a fabulously complex molecular machine, it doesn't so much diminish my humanity as it elevates the mechanical metaphor.