A Talk With a Cell
The majority of this week has consisted of learning about proteins, one of the most complex, necessary, and incredible things that make up our bodies and the world around us. Forgive me as I go off on a bit of an absurd tangent – I blame the astonishing nature of cells and proteins for skewing my mind off topic. But I thought, why not share my weird thought digression – after all, it was prompted by something pertaining to class…
Yesterday, a classmate said something like, “you’d think these cells have brains… it is amazing that they do this all without even knowing it”. I thought it an interesting thing to say and started to fantasize on the idea, pretending it was in fact true. In this dream world, I pretended cells did have brains and they were listening, like a visiting student, in our class. I came to possess a great desire to ask a cell (as if it were so easy to pick one out) what they thought about what we were saying about them. I wanted to know if they would be impressed, or outright embarrassed for us. Yes, there is an incredible amount of proof as to the behavior of the cells within our bodies, but having this perspective, just for a second, made me pretend to be an uneducated fool, and think how much we just may be assuming – how far we were stretching our facts. I guess this doubt in our (referring to the collective human race) knowledge was created through a close correlation of two things: the first thing being (ironically) all the things I had just learned to be true (specifically about how cells form proteins). The second being my provisional acknowledgment of the things only cells know and we do not. As a result of this shifted perspective, I realized the incredible intellect and ignorance that human beings possess. From this, I came to the conclusion that a cell would both be impressed with and ashamed of our knowledge.
So, let me share some of the knowledge that took my breath away, but would probably put a cell to sleep… After covering the basic concept of protein folding (that a protein is a chain of amino acids that essentially fold up on themselves), we zoomed into that chain of amino acids and discovered interactions of energy which significantly affect how proteins fold and the structure at which they eventually arrive. Because these energy interactions happen on the cellular level, everything we learned about the specific behavior of cells brought me back to the idea of personifying a cell. We first discussed the concept of energy minimization (the natural tendency of objects to seek to minimize their energy by sharing it equally with their surrounding environment). Cells are so generous with one another! Although not everyone may be so kind and generous on the outside, always take the compliment that they are still sharing their cellular energy with you and their surroundings! I’ll take it.
This thought, though, was shot down after our professor told us that energy minimalization is connected to a theory about the death of our earth… not so encouraging.
Another concept I could not help but to personify is that of miss-folded proteins. A protein gets miss folded if it arrives at and gets stuck at an energy level higher than its native state (its lowest energy level). A protein gets stuck in this local energy level because it does not possess the excess energy to pop itself out. Thus, it is like someone who has become complacent – one who is content with their position or state of mind yet knows they possess a higher potential they have not yet put forth the energy into accomplishing. But is this necessarily a problem they can control? Is their success entirely up to them or partly determined by their environment?
Since these are quite personal questions, I decided not to ask the cell. So, the conversation ended there.
Taking a step back, this dream world, while quite absurd, allowed me to interact with something I would have otherwise never interacted with. Although not physically there talking with me, this theoretical subject was able to challenge and expand my thoughts without me even knowing it, just as is keeps me alive, just now I have a glimpse of how it does that!