The cell is the basic, irreducible, unit of life. Whether an organism is animal, plant, fungal or bacterial, the cell is its basic unit. While it can be broken down into its ‘parts’ for examination, none of those parts are capable of independent life, none are able to continue fulfilling their functions on their own. The cell and its ‘community of parts’ operate as a ‘social’ unit, as a whole. Each ‘part’ fulfills one or more roles in the ongoing life of the cell. This book is a review of cell biology, of the development of our, human, understanding of the life of the cell and its centrality to our understandings of what it is be alive, how it has and continues to transform our practice of medicine. The author, Siddhartha Mukherjee, is a doctor and researcher who has spent his professional life studying blood and its cancers, trying to understand and treat disease. Continue reading
Category Archives: Growth
The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life – A Review (Read This Book if any of the Life Sciences are of even remote interest to you)
I’m an integrator, a contextual learner and a big picture kind of guy. I am willing to ‘slog’ through the details, the analyses of experts, to understand what is going on, when the details help me understand, in this case, the operation or ‘life’ of the whole organism. What are the processes, how do they influence one another and how does that result in the condition we recognize as the dynamic, animated phenomenon of living. Franklin Harold, a professor emeritus in biochemistry at Colorado State University when he wrote, “The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life”, in 2003, has produced the ‘best’, and most comprehensible, review I’ve found of the life in the cell, to date. This book does not require an advanced degree to follow. It requires an interest in biology. A botanist, horticulturist or even avid gardener pursuing a more thorough understanding of what life is and what is occurring within the plants and animals around will find much that is accessible to them here. This book is not a slog. It is readable and readily comprehensible, though for those with less of a science background, a little more challenging, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. The jargon he uses I would say is necessary. Science can be very precise in how it views its subject, necessarily so, because meaning becomes lost when the precision of language is too generalized. I’m adding it to my own library. I include some extensive quotes here to give you a sense of his style and philosophy. I also gleaned much from these particular passages. In school I endured too many professors and lecturers who seemed more interested in impressing their students with their own brilliance, and our inferiority, and came to relish those who were true teachers, who were able to impart to their students, there own love and fascination with their topic. Harold is one of these. He set out to write a book that would reach out to the reader making his topic more accessible, more comprehensible and thus widen the circle of understanding…and he has succeeded.
The cell, scientists would agree, is the smallest fully functional unit of an organism, any organism. It is the basic structural unit that has been joined together to create larger, more complex organisms. If you attempt to reduce it any further, divide it into its component parts, which science typically does in its process of reduction to understand it in its parts, it loses functionality and dies. Single celled organisms, bacteria, archae, and the larger single celled eukaryotic organisms, like amoebas, comprise the majority of living species on earth, by both number of species and by sheer mass. They are as complete as any single organism, like ourselves, a Redwood or Blue Whale, can be. Whether a single celled organism or a massive multi celled organism made up of several billions of many thousand ‘types’ of different specialized cells, almost all cells are capable of all of their essential functions, as long as they are supplied with proper nutrients and flows of energy. Cells, as Harold describes them, are highly coordinated ‘societies’ comprised of many millions of individual proteins, enzymes, lipids and ions, with various forms of RNA, bound within a protective, limiting and self-regulating membrane, often with other internal membranes, which protect and allow other more specialized functions within the cell…and DNA, or in the cases of some bacteria, RNA, which contain the ‘code’ which prescribes the organism. It is within the cell membrane where the particular mixes of their constituent parts are held in dynamic flux, where the ‘work’ of living occurs. Within what was once described as a ‘soup’ of chemicals, suspended within a virtual sea of water, the cell conducts the ‘business’ of life. Today we understand that within a single cell water molecules far out number any other substance. Cells possess a complex internal structure, a cytoskeleton, grown from proteins, that is integral to the transport of metabolites, the regulation of its thousands of internal processes, the structure of the cell itself and essential to its ability to respond and move. The actions within the cell are largely self-regulating, influenced, certainly, by outside, and internal energy gradients. The various reactions influence the rate of other reactions in a complex system of feedback loops, with a ‘logic’ often compared to that utilized by a computer. Processes are chemical, electrical and ‘mechanical’ as one reaction induces a conformational change, a change in ‘shape’, of a particular protein or enzyme, which directly influences what it can do. These changes in ‘shape’ act as effective ‘switches’ within the cell, switches operating amongst thousands of other such switches, creating an intricate system of feedback loops which regulate just what the next step will be. Only functions tend not to be linear. They can be extremely complex, with a redundancy that also allows the cell to vary internally widely, while maintaining itself, overall, in a relatively stable state. Its internal complexity then accounts for its responsiveness and adaptability. It imparts a degree of flexibility, of adaptability to a system within the cell. All of this going on at a molecular level that plays out, with powerful effect, at the organismic level. Continue reading
Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things–A Review…and a Deeper Look Into the ‘Fire’ of Life..
This is a book about ‘life’, that which animates particular organic structures, organisms, absent from other ‘structures’ which remain fixed, but for the physical and chemical forces which wear them down. From our human perspective, this sets ourselves, and all other living things, apart from the inert, nonliving, matter that comprises our world and the universe. England, as a physicist, sees the world of nature and all matter within it, differently than most of us. Science has demonstrated that the universe tends to operates under consistent ‘laws’. Organisms, while a special ‘class’ of matter, are still of matter composed of the same atoms joined together in complex macromolecules not found outside of organisms, which are in fact created within organisms. They occupy a different section along a continuum defined by energy, a ‘family’ of complex, shared organic structures. This complexity of structure goes to determining their functionality. Function increases and diversifies as complexity increases, capacities are expanded and the flow of energy through them becomes an effective and sustaining agent in their ‘being’ and evolution. His view is consistent with the many other physicists who have looked into life and view it as an inevitable outcome of the processes, energies and materials that comprise Earth’s particular corner of the universe. Earth appears to be a relatively rare occurrence, but it is extremely doubtful that it is a singular one. Given the particular mix of ‘ingredients’ and energies here, matter has come together over the course of over 4 billion years to form life as we know it because it could and whatever is possible/probable tends to happen with a degree of frequency. Particular patterns precede those to follow, not necessarily determining them, but increasing the likelihood that they will. The flow of energy through matter tends to ‘favor’ a range of outcomes. Those outcomes tend to favor the next, building from one ‘success’ to the next.
Many of these patterns and energy flows occur at molecular levels well below our ability to observe and measure. These patterns are not generally obvious to us. Our perceptions are shaped by our beliefs about the world. We tend to ‘see’ what we expect to see, not necessarily what is there. We shape our perceived world into the commonly shared story that has been passed on to us. Our particular indoctrination, our educations, all go toward determining what we see, then we take our experience and use it to reinforce that understanding. In a sense we ‘choose’ our reality. From the moment we each open our mouths or put word to page, we do this. Our language and knowledge limit us. It requires that we distill our perceptions, our experiences and our understanding into a comprehensible form. We are then limited by our biases, our language, what we already ‘know’. We are all at a ‘remove’ in this sense, apart from the world in which we live, although we are intimately immersed in it. As ‘western’ people we tend to see ourselves as separate from it. In actuality, we can never be so. England looks into this question of what life is by taking our modern and still developing idea of ‘thermodynamics’, our study of energy and the way that it ‘works’ on the stuff of the universe, on matter, as his way into this ‘story’. Energy is transformative. Matter, is arguably, a particular expression of energy. One can be translated into the other.
England is a theoretical physicist. You will not find in this book a detailed explanation of the living organism or even a detailed description of the flow of energy through one. Thermodynamics and his idea of dissipative adaptation are larger concepts that can give us a framework for understanding the bigger picture of an almost unfathomably complex topic. England joins with those today who would argue that any living organism is not so much a thing as it is a process, in a state of continuous change, a process which both follows a probable, understandable, path, and is itself a part of the larger/longer process of evolution, of becoming, building on itself and life’s many patterns, as it moves ahead through time toward something unknowable to us. We exist from moment to moment, a ‘response’, one of a particular and massive set of more or less likely probabilities, each which influences what will follow, within a universe of definable ‘law’. Here England gives us an intellectual framework for understanding the processes at play in this process of living. Living organisms are conductors of a continuous flow of energy through them from outside and back after it has degraded. This flow of energy acts in very particular ways on the molecules, cells, tissues and organs of an organism…until it no longer can. An organism, is in a sense, a conductor, a channel through which energy flows from a higher, more available state, to a lower, less available state. Energy drives them, permits them and enables them so that they are in this sense ‘self’ sustaining…as long as the energy flows and the organism can maintain the integrity of its structure at all levels.
The following is an extensive quote from his book: Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Organisms, pp. 113-116.
“…a plant—for example—has to be thought of as holding steady on a steep [energy] hillside in a constant state of free fall. Much like the chemicals in a battery powering a flashlight, many molecules in a plant are constantly undergoing reactions that convert them into other, lower-energy forms. At the same time, randomizing thermal fluctuations are taking the specially ordered components of each cell that have been assembled in a particular fashion and wreaking havoc with them, either through chemical damage or via larger-scale physical rearrangements. In permanent darkness, a plant is therefore on a slow road to death, for dying in physical terms is nothing more than sliding downhill in a variety of chemical and physical ways. Of course, plants can survive just fine for a while in the dark, but not forever. [Animals, for the most part exist in a much more precarious balance requiring much higher energy flows for a given mass.] Eventually, the twin tendencies to lower energy and higher disorder that are required by the fall to thermal equilibrium will win out, and the pile of matter that was originally a live organism will start to look less and less like one.
A Review and thoughts on Peter Hoffmann’s book, “Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos”, Basic Books, 2012.
This is a relatively technical book, one whose title, with its definite mechanistic spin, nearly stopped me from reading it. In this Hoffmann begins with a history of science and how we have looked at life as a remarkable process from the days of Aristotle to today and how that has shaped our inquiry and our capacity to understand it. Is life possible only because of some inexplicable, and yet unknown, ‘vital’ force? Are organisms endowed with this gift of life by a creator? or are there physical laws which shape and determine life? There has been a long ‘battle’ waged between the various ‘vitalists’ and mechanists, the later who once viewed an organism as a special machine, popularly comparable to a watch or clock, animated by a ‘vital’ force, who over time evolved their search into that of more recent times of seemingly fantastical molecular mechanisms, ‘engines’, within an organism which, because of their nano-scale can perform and behave in ways that appear incredible to the layperson. Continue reading
“Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”: A Review
Sheldrake, Melvin, “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”, Random House, 2020.
I have spent most of my life outside amongst, growing, observing or studying plants and yet, every page here has caused me to take at least a moment to reconsider the life I’ve been so involved with. Everything here underscores what I’ve read and learned elsewhere, sometimes casting it in an entirely different ‘light’. While we learn to think of organisms as discrete individuals, fungi, a class of organism separate from the bacteria, plants, animals, even viruses which I’ve been examining, are impossible to consider on their own without looking into their vital relationships with the other forms of life. While all organisms depend in many ways, great and small, upon other organisms for their support and sustenance, fungi are nearly impossible to imagine separately, their ‘bodies’ being literally intertwined in and around those of others.
Relatively early in the book, Sheldrake describes the difference between fungi and animals in this way, animals put food into their own bodies, fungi put their bodies in their food, digesting what they require by secreting acids and then drawing the broken down nutrients back into their mycelial bodies and transporting them to where needed. Continue reading
Sex, Evolution and Form: Clarifying the Relationship Between Dandelion and the European Honey Bee
The European Honeybee, EHB, and the Common Dandelion, are both ubiquitous in our modern urban lives though the one is portrayed as being both essential to our lives while its future is threatened and dependent upon our constant support. The Dandelion in contrast is a product of our disruption of the natural world and our very way of life and continues on as a pest species despite our efforts to ‘control’ it. They viability of the EHB is often linked to the continuation of a large population of Dandelion individuals. The EHB certainly benefits from the Common Dandelion finding ready individuals across our lawns and gardens, but the dandelion isn’t particularly dependent upon the EHB. The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinalis, is apomictic and doesn’t require pollinators at all. Apomixis isn’t a fancy word for ‘selfing’ or wind pollination either…what it means is that it, in lieu of an available pollinator, possess the capacity to skip over meiosis, the entire part of sexual reproduction in which an organism’s typical double, pair of chromosomes, which exist normally in all cells, and are known as diploid, ‘di’ for two sets of chromosomes, are reduced by half, to one set in ‘sexual’ cells, known as gametes, the sperm and egg cells, their chromosomes now ‘haploid’. Then, after pollination, the two haploid chromosomes are reunited uniquely through the process of fertilization. This is is the process skipped over in an apomictic plant. While it possess all of the ‘accoutrements’ of all flowering plants, stamen with their filaments and anthers, pistils with their stigma, style and fused carpels or ovaries, Dandelions are able to ‘short-circuit’ the process and produce viable seed on their own from their undivided, diploid, cells. Ever noticed how Dandelion seed heads always tend to be filled out? Perfectly spherical? Continue reading
Physics, Evolution, Natural Selection and the Generative Power of the of Far Out of Equilibrium Dissipative Structures (Organisms), part 2
On Pattern, Chemistry and Life
Pattern builds upon pattern. Whatever you start with effects and limits everything that follows whether we are talking about masonry bricks and stone or Eukaryotic cells and organic molecules. A different starting point or ‘decision’ at any point in the process, effects every ‘decision’, or even possibility, there after, effects the likelihood of what is to follow, shapes the possibilities, the future, through the evolutionary process…but does not determine it. To speculate whether other amino acid groups are theoretically possible does nothing to change the course we are on. The capacities and characteristics of your most basic components set the stage for all that follows, the brick analogy only takes you so far. Bricks, no matter what you do with them, are very limited in what they can create…how they will ‘behave’ when structured as a wall. They do not, when combined into a structure, acquire properties that no single brick had before their assembly…their futures were ‘decided’ the moment they were made into bricks. They remain bricks. Continue reading
On the Chaotic Unreality of the Real and How We Redefine It: Reimagining Reality in a Probable Universe
Because the pace of change in our scientific understanding of our world, and the technology which follows it, is increasing at greater rates in recent decades than at any other time in our history, it has become ever so more important that we have at least some basic understanding of that science and technology, that we as a society wield in this world…without this, we are literally blundering in the dark, blindly upsetting systems and cycles, upon which our lives depend, with little understanding of our responsibility for the decline or grasp of our own agency in setting the world back to rights. The advancement of science is an outgrowth of our curiosity as a society. It is a look behind the ‘curtain’ that too many of us take for granted. The technologies that spring from these scientific advances carry with them consequences which amplify our individual impacts while providing us with promised advantages through a marketplace that too often only wants to sell and profit from its latest innovation, with little concern for its overall impacts. As long as our basic world view, our grasp of science, remains stuck in the past, in the more ‘simple’ classical world of its roots, we are more easily swayed by advertisers and pitchmen who’s business demands that we not look too deeply. We are not, and can never be, ‘experts’ in every field. The demands and rigors of scientific advancement have a very high bar, but it is essential, especially in these days, that we understand basic concepts, that we have some grasp of how science has redefined the world making possible those technologies which we either wield clumsily, like a weapon of destruction, or more tactfully and respectfully like a surgeon and healer. As long as science remains esoteric and remote, ourselves ignorant of its ‘message’ and, by extension, ignorant of our own impact on the world, we place all things at risk. Continue reading
On Life: An Annotated Reading List of Titles Exploring the Physics, Biology, Evolution, Natural Selection and the Generative Power of Far Out of Equilibrium Dissipative Structures (Organisms)
Nurse, Paul, “What is Life?: Five Great Ideas in Biology”, WW Norton and Co., 2021. I’m placing this book out of order here, its American edition just released this year and I’ve only just read it, because I concur that this is an excellent introduction to its topic and should be accessible to a broad audience, one without an academic background in biology. It does what Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, does for its readers, presents in a compact and cogent way the central ideas for understanding the science of life. Nurse, is a Nobel Prize winning geneticist and cell biologist, who has dedicated his research life to the study of the cell and what sets this class of matter apart and unique, looking into its structure, chemistry/metabolism, reproduction, evolution and the relationships and communication which must occur within and between cells. He looks into what genetics is and isn’t capable of, what it seems to control, the genes for 20,000 some different proteins included within our DNA, while leaving open to question the instructions and detailed directions, how the growth and development of an organism is actually determined.
The reader will benefit from having some basic understanding of chemistry to fully grasp what he writes here, but this is an excellent starting point. At 143 pages this book shouldn’t scare off the reader. This is a window into life and should peek the readers interest as Nurse reveals what he still finds so fascinating about life and this world.
Al-Khalili, Jim and Johnjoe McFadden, “Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology”, Broadway Books, 2016. In the world of science, quantum biology is a toddler. Quantum mechanics itself only began a hundred plus years ago and quickly began redefining the way that physicists look at the world. Today most branches of science are transforming themselves, aligning themselves with this new reality of physics. This may be impacting none of the sciences more than it is biology and the life sciences. What was once limited to the quantum world of elementary particles so much smaller than we can see even with technology’s assistance, today we are finding quantum actions behind even the most simple processes up to and including the energy and origins of life. Mass and energy lie at the heart of everything and life is a very particular case of highly complex ordering of that mass and energy, intricately linked in coherent relationships, borne out of seemingly random, chaotic, actions at a subatomic level. In these systems/organisms life has evolved effective patterns that ‘feed’ on themselves, self-regulating, self-maintaining, able to reproduce with great ‘fidelity’ to one’s parent organisms, energy dissipating structures, dynamic, balanced between stasis or death and a runaway consumption of one’s self,, a conflagration. Patterns built on more basic patterns, conformed into very particular resonant structures which are additive and transformative, never perfect, evolving towards greater complexity and capacity, structures that ‘live’ in relationship to one another in a supportive manner, dynamic, time limited and ‘stable’ in a self-reinforcing sense…existing in different states, simultaneously. Follow Al-Khalili and McFadden down part of a ‘proven’ path. Continue reading
Physics, Evolution, Natural Selection and the Generative Power of the of Far Out of Equilibrium Dissipative Structures (Organisms), part 1
On Darwin and His Theory
Evolution is a word that can divide the world. Its opponents often claim that all that lives today, in terms of species diversity, did so yesterday…all the way back to the ‘first’ yesterday, which some people claim was precisely 4004 B.C., when ‘God’ created everything essentially in a moment. Bishop Ussher, of Ireland, published his ‘findings’ in 1650 and his ‘documentation’ is that most frequently referenced by opponents of evolution. He has it down to the day, Oct. 23 of that year. This is a problem when a researcher goes in with an ‘answer’ and is only looking for corroborating evidence, evidence which they will eventually find. Science, through the study of evolution, has developed various specialized technologies and techniques to reach back in time and analyze the evidence at hand. It has done this building on the work of those studying paleontology, microbiology, geology, chemistry, atmospheric chemistry; palynology, the study of pollen; astronomy and cosmology, quantum physics, stochastic methods developed around the hypothesis of a molecular clock which posits a rate of genetic change; and cladistics which assesses genetic lineages, the relationships between species and larger classification groups…scientists have collectively been dating ‘life’ back over Earth’s 4 billion years. The creationist argument depends entirely upon belief, denies science and views evidence such as fossils simply as ‘puzzles’ God left to confuse us.…Others accept that lower species may have ‘evolved’, but Man, created in His image, is special, exceptional and exempt, a creation of God, fixed and forever. Modern science does not give a pass to such claims of specialness seeking instead more direct evidence, making connections, following patterns, doing science….