A cell is a big place – take a closer look inside

January 31, 2009 at 9:17 pm Leave a comment

My previous post was on looking at things in bulk. Microarrays, gene expression signatures, the context of the cell. This time I want to go the other way. Other than looking at the context of the cell in order to understand all the molecular events that are going on inside, we must also consider the subcellular environment of these events. After all, the cell is not just a bag with all those molecules in it, which is just shaken up from time to time, causing the molecules to interact pretty much at random. What it is, actually, which many people fail to appreciate, and still more find it more convenient to just ignore, is more like a factory. A factory with its production halls, supply routes, transport systems, computing facilities, depots, the whole lot. I mean, if you are a molecule, it’s a pretty damn scary place, and pretty crowded, too. If you are a big molecule, say a 100kDa, you may want to get on a vesicular elevator before you try to get anywhere. And you damn well better have a ticket in a form of a targeting domain, lest those proteasomal policemen show you where your place is. The one thing the cell is not is messy. It is perfectly organized, and what it means is that not only does it have to have separate compartments to do separate, sometimes completely incompatible things, but it also must have good ways to transfer information and material between those compartments so that it all can function in a more or less coordinated way. Only now, with the advent of really precise microscopy and live imaging techniques do we start to appreciate the subcellular complexity of life. That’s where I think part of the key to really understandig cellular processes lies. If we keep treating cells as bags of stuff, we will keep getting seemingly conflicting results, which may simply be a reflection of the fact that different subcellular compartments were at play in the observed phenomena.

Given all of the above it goes without saying that I am very excited about the advances made in recent years in high resolution real-time imaging. It is quite amazing to actually get a glimpse at the microscopic world of a single cell. If you have access to nature neuroscience, check out supplementary videos on the following paper by Yudowski et al. from Mark von Zastrow’s group “Distinct modes of regulated receptor insertion to the somatodendritic plasma membrane”. I mean, aren’t they totally cool???!??! True, we haven’t yet reached a stage where we can really image any selected cellular process in real-time, but the inroads are being made. Who knows where we will be in a few years. The stochastic black box of a cell is actually being pried opened on our very eyes, and I, for one, want to be a part of this subcellular revolution…

Entry filed under: New and cool in biomed, Philosophy of science, Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

Where do we go from here in biomedical science (or why is context so damn important) Scientific misconduct is a crime!

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