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By Egiroh Omene
You may remember a diagram like this from a biology course you took a number of years ago. While it’s fun to label the components of a cell, this exercise doesn’t really give you a feeling for what a cell is about. Many people leave an introductory college biology class with no intuition for the structure and essence of the cell. This post aims to give a more intuitive depiction of one way that scientists think the cell may have come to be.
As a metaphor, the cell can be thought of as an underwater metropolis contained in a protective barrier. Within the metropolis are specialized districts, each with a specific function working to sustain the metropolis as a whole. Within the cell there is the microscale equivalent of a nuclear power plant, a network of highways, a towering array of skyscrapers, and an incomprehensibly-productive manufacturing sector. There is a highly refined waste removal system, and a grand repository of information containing the city’s blueprint (which also instructs the city’s destiny.) It’s a dynamic place with a million different components whizzing and whirling about. It’s a far cry from the static image you might’ve experienced in an intro biology course.
How Did the Cell Come to Be?
Let’s rewind a few billion years, to a time when most of the Earth was covered in ocean, and the atmosphere was markedly different than today. This early atmosphere was populated by a handful of simple, inorganic compounds, such as nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. This early Earth had the right temperatures and conditions to allow these simple, inorganic compounds to react and create more complex organic molecules.
Just Add Heat, Electricity… Voila!
With a handful of inorganic molecules, just the right amount of heat, and a bit of electricity you can create many of the basic molecules we see in life. In a general sense, the molecules of life are a collection of organic molecules that are common to every living thing. More specifically, they are the sorts of things you might find on a nutritional label: fat, carbohydrates, amino acids (which make up proteins), and nucleic acids. As these complex organic molecules formed, they found their way from Earth’s atmosphere and into the Earth’s oceans.
These building blocks of life and these building blocks of cells are simple to make. But how do you construct a city without cranes and a construction crew? And who gives the orders?
From Organic Mélange to Organized Cell
This is where things get even more interesting. Again, imagine the cell as a metropolis, submerged in water and sealed shut by a barrier. In a cell, this barrier is essentially a thin film of fat. Think of what happens when a drop of oil hits water—it sticks to itself forming a sphere of oil separate from the water. This is the same sort of process that created the spherical barrier we call the cell membrane. Now, the actual cell membrane gets a little more complicated, but on a basic level we can see how its structure is created. A subset of molecules created in the atmosphere had this ‘oil-in-water’ property and provided the cell’s barrier.
The formation of the membrane is a key component of the cell. The membrane separates the inside of the cell (and all that happens there) from the outside of the cell (and all that happens there). This is an obvious but important point.
Now, imagine that as each of these spheres of fat form they capture a population of those complex organic molecules referenced before: a little nucleic acid, some carbohydrates, some amino acids.
Instead of floating around aimlessly, though, with nucleic acids going here, amino acids going there, and carbohydrates doing whatever, a subset of the nucleic acids have a special property: some nucleic acids embrace and hold on to specific amino acids every time they come in contact.
This bringing together of amino acids is the fundamental process of construction in living things, and the subset of nucleic acids in question is DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid. This selective behavior forms the basis of the synthesis of proteins from amino acids.
It is simple and it is magical. These amino acids are versatile parts, and at the instruction of DNA the amino acids have gone on to be assembled into a variety of things: pumps, propellers, highways and skyscrapers.
Complexity from Chaos
At every point, notice that something has happened to increase complexity and order. First it was the creation of complex molecules from the early atmosphere. Next, a unique and separate microenvironment was formed within the nascent cell membrane, a process that trapped and separated a collection of the complex molecules from the world outside of the membrane. Then, one set of these organic molecules created complex structures from the molecules floating within the membrane-enclosed compartment.
It is through this sort of process–of developing complexity and order–that the cell was built. And soon, from the individual cell we had communities of cells. These cells formed organisms–the sorts of organisms that themselves became more and more complex, going on to swim, fly, and run across the Earth.
From inorganic compounds, to complex organic molecules, to life. This is quite the journey
By Elizabeth HowellMy purse was gone. Snatched from beside my legs while I worked in a downtown Toronto public library in March, just hours after I arrived in the city for a brief vacation. Everything was inside it: my ID, my credit cards, my debit cards, a work phone, cash and of course, the ticket back home to Ottawa.
I’m a freelance space journalist. I’ve read about astronaut training for years and watched them work through problems in space. While I wouldn’t equate my understanding about emergencies with their understanding, astronauts taught me a thing or two about what to do when a problem arises. Contain the problem, then find solutions.
With the help of a library employee who offered me a desk and landline, I phoned the police, cancelled my cards, got in touch with my bank, and informed my phone company about the stolen cell. Using a second cell phone I have for personal use, I found friends who had an available bed for me to use. Two hours later, things were better; I had cash, temporary ID and a place for the weekend. The emergency was over.
Then I took the next step that astronauts take after a crisis: how to minimize the damage if it happens again? As days wore into weeks, I discovered this is harder than it appears at first. It would require me to sign up at another bank, buy a travel computer, and battle silly bureaucracy along the way.The police phoned me back the morning after. I was at brunch with a dear friend (hereafter referred to as DF), who patiently waited as I described the circumstances of the theft on the phone. As I was outside of my roaming area and the call was lengthy, the phone ran out of money and the call cut off. DF offered a computer, back at DF’s apartment, for me to do the refill. A snowy 10-minute trek later, I logged into my phone provider’s website. Let’s call the phone company, oh, how about Apollo? After all, I’m a space journalist. Also, I don’t want to flash brand names, especially in vain.
Turns out that without credit cards, Apollo only allows for Interac transfers from four banks in Canada. Not my bank, of course.
(I’ve heard since, anecdotally, that this is the case for all phone companies in Canada, to be fair to Apollo). I called Apollo and got a rep fairly quickly. I explained my circumstances. “Go to a gas station and get an Apollo coupon code,” he answered.
In downtown Toronto that wouldn’t be very easy. I explained the situation, asked for an alternative, and was told there was none. I asked for a supervisor.
“Why do you want to talk to my supervisor? He can’t do anything more for you.”
“I just want to make sure that I have all the options.”
He kept arguing. My polite journalist persona slipped an inch and I pulled a card I didn’t like pulling one bit. “I am a woman travelling in another city and require a cell phone. Please transfer me to a supervisor,” I snapped. Thankfully, he listened. The supervisor, as it turned out, did have another option: go to an Apollo store. DF and I rushed over there, where I refilled the phone with cash and called the police back. (In reading this paragraph, my editor points out it was her first idea to go to an Apollo store – so clearly DF and I were too exhausted from the day before to think logically. Sorry, Spock. You’re forgiven Ms. Howell, xoxoxo, Xtmprsqzntwlfd.)
I’d been with Apollo since 2005, but I was done with them. The next weekend I unlocked the cell phone to switch to a company that I’ll call Gemini. The process was arduous, requiring three phone calls, one online chat, and three visits to two Apollo locations in -20 degrees Celsius. But I got it done. DF, also a long-time customer, went with a Gemini affiliate.The police actually did recover my purse (missing the cash but nothing else) from a fast-food chain about 72 hours after the theft occurred. I was lucky. But what if this was to happen again, while I was travelling? I began asking myself about losing my wallet, losing my computer, and how I would fix things.
I decided it’s too risky (from a data privacy perspective) to bring my regular laptop with me. So I purchased a deeply discounted tablet/keyboard combination for $400 as a secondary computer.
When I got the purse back, I put it in a drawer and instead used a newly acquired fanny pack to store my wallet and a few other essentials. A fashion-conscious relative begged me to at least not use it on my front, which I promised to do. I’m sure I look a little silly carrying it around, but that was the advice the police gave me and I am prepared to follow it.
I also minimized my wallet even further. I didn’t carry a lot of cards in it before the theft, but now I’m being even more paranoid. I’m always carrying some essentials separately from the wallet now to give me backup. And if I’m in another country, I’ll have the address and phone number of the Canadian embassy with me (again on police advice).
Finally, I opened an account at one of the “big five” Canadian banks to give me more branches, opening hours and Interac options if I need to acquire cash quickly. If I’m in any major city across the country now, I can get my hands on some cash.
A couple of weeks after the purse was stolen, a friend asked me, “How were you feeling right after this happened?” I explained that I was focused on getting my life back together, and that I never was really mad at the person – they were obviously in a desperate spot. I mainly felt upset and alone after battling through administrative stupidity. Online accounts or phone systems that require card numbers to log in, that sort of thing.
My friends were fantastic, though. I had places to stay, free meals and even some money thrust upon me. Most of the police officers I talked with were also quite helpful, as were their websites. This Service Canada web page is a great starting point if your valuables have been stolen.I chose to write about this story for a journalist audience because many of us are freelancers, travelling for work, writing up stories in coffee shops or libraries or other places. I’m hoping that by telling my story, by explaining the difficulties I went through and how I’m trying to protect myself, I can stop others from having the same problem.
Stuff happens. But I’m hoping that if this ever happens to me again, I won’t be as vulnerable. I also don’t wish this experience upon someone else, so I urge you to take stock of how you carry items on the road to make sure you’re doing it as safely as possible.
Elizabeth Howell (@howellspace) is an award-winning science journalist who focuses on space exploration. Some of her favourite stories include covering three shuttle launches, and interviewing multiple astronauts concerning their space station missions. She has also done writing work in areas such as the environment, technology and business. Elizabeth’s work appears regularly in SPACE.com, Universe Today, LiveScience, Space Exploration Network and the NASA Lunar Science Institute, among other places.
by Barry Shell
For almost 20 years I’ve been handling science-related questions from people all over the world through the Ask-A-Scientist feature at science.ca. From how to get rid of warts to shooting bullets into space, the questions are never dull. Here is sampling of some of the questions and comments we received in March 2014.
The site is bilingual so things started off with a message in French from someone viewing one of our more popular questions and answers regarding the removal of warts with banana peel.
Eh oui, j’ai déjà une verrue en moins! Donc cela marche et c’est ce qui m’a conduite a rechercher les composants de la banane… Je frotte 2 ou 3 fois par jour. Translation: Yes, I already got rid of a wart! So it works, and that’s what led me to research the components in a banana [and why he ended up on science.ca] … I rub two or three times a day.
In my answer I speculate that fundamentally it might be a placebo effect based on my own personal experience of literally willing warts away just by staring at them and visualizing them shrinking. To be more scientific, my answer points readers to a 2005 paper on the chemical components of banana peel, which lists succinic acid, 12-hydroxystearic acid, and a few other organic acids. Since one of the main components in commercially available wart removal cream is salicylic acid, also an organic acid, perhaps it is these acids that help dissolve warts.
Another popular question on the site is: “What’s it like to be a scientist? Are you wearing big glasses, a lab coat, have crazy hair, and are you pretty old?”They must be imagining the iconic image of Albert Einstein. This question was, in part, answered by a retired physicist named Harry Murphy in New Mexico in 2006. What does he look like? He describes himself this way: “I am 74 years old, pretty bald and I wear glasses.” I think that describes a lot of older people, not just scientists. And most scientists do not wear lab coats.
Sometimes at science.ca things can get a little tense.
One angry reader chastised me for an answer I posted years ago about aluminum. The question was a simple one, and something anyone who ever reads make-up labels must have wondered, “What is an aluminum lake? Does it contain aluminum?”
My answer explains that a lake in this sense refers to a food colour additive, usually blue, adsorbed to alumina, i.e. aluminum oxide or corundum powder, a naturally occurring mineral but not elemental aluminum. I then go on to discuss how unlikely it is for aluminum to be toxic in its natural occurring forms of sand and clay. Aluminum is the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust (after oxygen and silicon) so all life forms have evolved to handle it with ease.
Nevertheless, my answer elicited the following rant: “Do some re-research on the most abundant elements on the Earth. It is so irresponsible to feed people this load of crap. Shame on you, seriously. Let me guess, you work for a corrupt organization… and your experts are limited by biased-funding. Fuck all that, seek truth. Peace out Bitches.”
Peace out indeed.
Yet another skeptic, a 91 year-old man in Drayton, Alberta, wanted to know if waste-water injected into geological formations 2500 metres beneath the Earth’s surface could somehow make its way into ground water. “There is so much we don’t know and understand about the subsurface,” he said.
I answered: “My feeling is we know more about this than you may think. If you provide me with a more specific reference about where this practice is occurring and as much detail as possible, I will check with a geology professor at a Canadian university. However, my cursory look at the general information shows that most ground water aquifers are 100m to 500m deep. The deepest of all known aquifers is 1800 meters. Hence 2500m would seem to be far enough away, but I am no expert. If you can provide more information, perhaps I can help a bit more.” But the fellow thanked me and said he was satisfied.
At science.ca we get a lot of questions about outer space and cosmology. The recent movie Gravity caused a 32-year-old fellow from the Northwest Territories to ask, “Can you fire a bullet in space? If a bullet was fired would it slow or spin forever?”
I answered that yes a gun can be fired in space because the bullet contains a chemical oxidizer so no oxygen is needed. The bullet would indeed reach a certain velocity and travel forever as long as it was not attracted to a large mass such as a planet or the Sun, in which case it would go into orbit, and eventually fall into the massive object.
The guy also asked, “What do you think about the Mars project, will it be successful? Are there aliens on the dark side of the moon? What do scientists and the general establishment, your peers, think about aliens and the popularized theories about alien civilizations throughout history and the possibility of governments hiding alien information from the general public?”
I told the guy I had my doubts about the Mars project but with Elon Musk involved, who knows? I then provided a link to the Wikipedia page on Conspiracy Theories. This questioner was an average guy, representing a lot of sane people who wonder about this stuff, so as science writers we need to address such questions.
Next, a 17-year-old boy in Marikina City, Philippines asked, “Is it possible in the future to travel without moving our body, I mean by converting our body into data then move it to another place using the Internet, Bluetooth and other programs used to transfer data? I’m just asking if it’s possible.”
I told him, no, it was not possible, but who knows what the future holds? Nobody thought you could get super bright light from a piece of sand (Light Emitting Diodes) until Einstein theorized it in 1905 and 110 years later we now find that all light bulbs are moving toward this extremely efficient technology.
A couple days later a man in Sault Ste Marie had this brilliant idea: “If you had a geosynchronous satellite in outer space with a hose hooked up to it that reached the ocean; would outer space act as a vacuum to suck up unwanted water from the ocean?”
I pointed him to asimilar question and answer on science.ca whereby a boy proposed hanging a rope from the Moon that dangled all the way down to the Earth. He wondered if you grabbed onto it, would the Moon whisk you around the planet? A cool idea, but one of our expert volunteer scientists, UBC physicist Jess Brewer, replied that no ordinary rope, and not even carbon nanotubes would be able to support the weight of the 384,400km long cord required. Even a geosynchronous satellite, while much closer than the Moon, still needs to be at an altitude of 35,786 km to maintain its position. The mass of such a long hose would be enormous and impossible to support. And anyway, I explained that his idea would never work because the Earth’s gravity keeps the water in our oceans. No amount of vacuum would pull it into outer space (or else it would already be gone).
The questions keep coming in, and you never know what the inbox will hold tomorrow. It keeps me busy in retirement, and it’s a constant stimulating source of story ideas for sure.
Barry Shell is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Canada. He created www.science.ca, the top Google hit for any search on Canadian science. He has written four books, and has published in magazines and newspapers including the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. Originally from Winnipeg, Barry has a BSc in Organic Chemistry from Reed College in Portland, OR and an MSc in Resource Management Science from UBC. His book, Sensational Scientists profiling 24 of Canada’s greatest scientists and published by Raincoast Books, won a national book award in 2005. Barry also plays sax in a Vancouver pop trio that performs regularly at Trivia Night in Our Town Cafe.
Tagged with: Alberta • aluminum lake • aluminum oxide • Ask-A-Scientist • banana peel • Barry Shell • blog • bullets • canada • conspiracy theories • corundum powder • cosmology • CSWA • Einstein • Elon Musk • Geosynchronous satellite • Gravity • ground water • Harry Murphy • Jess Brewer • Mars project • Moon • movie • physical appearance • physics • science • shoot gun in space • Simon Fraser University • UBC • wart • waste water
By Kasra Hassani
When visiting the Czech Republic, there is a list of sights that you absolutely cannot miss: Prague’s old town square and its famous astronomical clock, the Prague castle and its magnificent basilica and finally the haunting Charles Bridge over the Vltava river which connects the castle to the old town. There is a less familiar agenda for places to visit, including the Franz Kafka Museum, the opera house where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni and the old Synagogue. There is still, however, another more obscure site which in my opinion is as attractive and historically unique as the rest, maybe even more if you are into science: Gregor Mendel’s old monastery where he first discovered the laws of classical genetics. St. Thomas’ Abbey is located in Brno, Czech Republic’s second largest city, and about two hours drive from Prague. The Abbey is now home to Mendel’s Museum of Genetics, to commemorate the work of father of genetics and his contributions to science.
Entering the Abbey’s yard was a moment of epiphany as I saw Mendel’s iconic peas decorating the backyard, the same place where he grew and studied them in the 19th century. The exhibit inside the museum depicts Mendel’s life in the Abbey, with charts explaining his experiments and discoveries. It rightfully ends with a large 3D model of the DNA double helix, reminding you how far science has gone in understanding nature and how important every little discovery – old or new – has been to its advancement.
Those of us who studied classical genetics vividly remember the stories of Mendel’s curious experiments with peas. He chose peas for his study because they are relatively quick and easy to grow and importantly so that he could have control over pollination, which was critical to Mendel’s study. Pea plants made it easy to determine which plants gave birth to which offspring and in turn the offspring of the offspring. It also gave Mendel the power to mate different plants with different traits and examine their offspring to see how the traits were inherited from one generation to the next.Mendel observed that when plants with two distinct traits (say tall and short) are crossed, the first generation offspring entirely show one trait (in this case tall). If the offspring are crossed again, however, there is a 3:1 ratio of tall to short plants in the second generation. He observed this pattern with different traits such as flower colour (white or pink), seed colour (green or yellow), seed shape (smooth or crooked) and so on. These carefully performed experiments and other complimentary ones resulted in Mendel formulating a set of principles now known as the Mendel’s principles/laws of classical genetics:
- Law of segregation: Each individual carries two copies of the allele that results in a trait. These alleles segregate from each other and the offspring receive only one copy from each parent. This leads to the 3:1 ratio of traits in the second generation. We now know the reason for having two copies of each allele is that most living organisms around us (excluding bacteria that reproduce via binary fission) carry two sets of chromosomes and each chromosome carries one allele. These chromosomes separate when the gametes (in our case spermatozoids and ovum) form and the gametes only carry one set. Quick note that halving the chromosomal copies in gametes of sexually reproducing organisms is essential so that the chromosomal copies do not double in every generation (every fertilization). You can read more about different mechanisms of reproduction here.
- Law of independent assortment: Different traits are sorted independently of one another. In other words, being tall or short does not influence flower colour or seed shape in peas. We know that this law holds true for genes (traits) that are located on separate chromosomes, therefore sorted separately from each other. Genes that are close to each other on the same chromosome tend to stick together. They could still be shuffled through another mechanism, but are not as independent. The traits that Mendel chose for his experiments are all located in different chromosomes. So he could see that they assorted independently from one another.
- Law of dominance: If the plant carries two different alleles simultaneously, only one (deemed dominant) will be seen and the other (deemed recessive) will be masked. There are many examples of genes with intermediate traits, when an individual carries one dominant and one recessive allele (sickle cell anemia, and Thalassemia), but this law still stands for many traits that are controlled by a single gene.
Cystic Fibrosis is an example of a trait that almost fully follows Mendelian genetics in humans. This sad disease occurs when an individual happens to carry two faulty copies of the gene coding for a protein responsible for chloride and sodium transport across cell membranes. This results in chemical imbalance in the body’s fluids, especially in mucosal organs such as the lungs. Cystic fibrosis patients suffer from thick mucosal secretions and are very sensitive to sinus and lung infections. If only one faulty copy is inherited, the other one will compensate and the individual will be normal, yet carrying the recessive trait for the gene. If a couple are both ‘carriers’ for the faulty cystic fibrosis allele, there is a one in four chance that their child would suffer from the disease. Same laws deduced in the 19th century by Mendel are used today to draw family pedigrees of cystic fibrosis patients and provide genetic counselling.
Not all genetic traits are as simple and clear-cut as cystic fibrosis. Despite earlier belief, most our traits are not determined by single genes. Almost all of what you see on the news about scientists discovering the gene for this and that are sadly misrepresentations of the actual scientific discoveries (exceptions do exist, cystic fibrosis being one). Our bodies function through harmonious action of all our genes (and the environment) working together in small or large groups. This complexity makes us appreciate the work of Mendel even more, as he managed to find such simple and solid laws without any hint of DNA, chromosomes or cell biology.
Mendel is recognised mostly for his work on laws of inheritance. But he was actually a multidisciplinary researcher. His background was in physics, which he studied at University of Olmütz for some time before joining the Abbey. He studied honeybees and documented the weather regularly. The tools he used for these studies are also part of the exhibition, as are parts of his diligently scribed notebooks (in other words, lab books).
Science tourism is the name of a Wikivoyage page listing exciting science attractions and museums such as Alfred Nobel’s museum in Sweden, CERN and the Space Center in Houston, Texas. Mendel’s Museum of Genetics, although maybe not as extensive and ostentatious as the others, is an essential addition to that list and a must-visit sight, especially for those of us who spent hours solving classical genetics problems.
On your way out from the Abbey, remember to take a photo with the modest statue of the father of genetics at the back of the yard.
Kasra Hassani is currently a postdoctoral fellow in mucosal immunology in Hannover Medical School, Germany. He uses mice and cell culture models to study the small intestine of adults and newborns. His research projects aim to understand the interactions of the cells lining the interior of the small intestine with different pathogens such as Salmonella, Rotavirus and Giardia, all of which cause significant morbidity worldwide, especially in children.
CSWA Book Awards Shortlist
The Canadian Science Writers’ Association offers two annual book awards to honour outstanding contributions to science writing 1) intended for and available to children/middle grades ages 8-12 years, and 2) intended for and available to the general public. Entries, in either French or English were published in Canada during the 2013 calendar year. The winners of this year’s award will be announced in mid-April and the award will be presented during the CSWA awards banquet at the annual conference in Toronto on June 7th.
Here is the shortlist in alphabetical order for outstanding youth book published in 2013:
A History of Just About Everything, Elizabeth MacLeod and Frieda Wishinsky
Au labo les Debrouillards!, Yannick Bergeron
Before the World Was Ready, Claire Eamer and Sa Boothroyd
Buzz About Bees, Kari-Lynn Winters
Dirty Science, Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone
Pandemic Survival, Ann Love and Jane Drake
Here is the shortlist in alphabetical order for outstanding general audience book published in 2013:
Catching Cancer, Claudia Cornwall
The Germ Code, Jason Tetro
The Juggler’s Children, Carolyn Abraham
Neutrino Hunters, Ray Jayawardhana
Oil Man and the Sea, Arno Kopecky
Origin of Feces, David Waltner-Toe
The final winner in each category will be announced in mid-April and the awards will be presented during the CSWA awards banquet at the annual conference in Toronto on June 7th.