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Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Did I Just Make Life? Following in Frankenstein's Footsteps

I don't mean travelling to the Arctic circle in search of revenge, (although lets not rule that out just yet) but rather building something living out of parts I dug up at midnight in a graveyard bought off Amazon. I am of course talking about building a computer, something I've never done before! I spent yesterday evening scratching my head at poorly translated instructions and peering intently at tiny wires. But that's not the point; the point is that in doing so I could relate a lot of what goes on in a computer to what goes on in a living cell, so thought I could shamelessly steal that as an analogy for this blog.

Spoilers; the answer to 'Did I just make life?' is definitely 'no'. But that's ok, because the journey is more important than the final answer sometimes!
Cells have membranes, and sometimes walls. This membrane isn't just a big bag, it gives structure to the cell, and regulates what goes in and out of the cell. Just like my computer case! There are lights, vents for air intake, and fans to chuck out the air again once it gets hot. This brings some 'homeostasis' to my computer, keeping it at the right temperature for proper function, just like the optimum growth temperature for one of my bacteria colonies. There are also slots for various input and output devices, enabling my computer cell to interact with the outside world.

Cells require energy, in the form of chemical energy provided by ATP made in the mitochondria. My computer cell does too, but electrical energy provided by the power cable. Within a living cell this energy is carried around by ATP, but in my computer cables and wires that I really need to tie up out of the way carry the energy to where it's needed.

In a cell, enzymes do all the dirty work; changing things, degrading things, and building new ones. I guess this is the motherboard? Where all the various bits and pieces of information are dealt with as required. Probably including the CPU in this. (Can you tell I don't really know what the motherboard exactly does? That's fine, because I don't know what all the enzymes in a cell do either!).

The Hard drive is my genome, saving all the instructions and data and stuff that's accessed by the enzyme/motherboard and other little computery organelles. Plasmids are similar; segments of DNA data for the rest of the cell to take information from to do things. This is my little solid state drive!

DNA's information is transcribed into RNA before it can be used; this is where the RAM comes in! The short term bits of data/memory copied from the genome hard drive while it's being used.

The cell can communicate with the external environment, via exuding chemicals and stuff, and the computer can too! By making sounds, or giving off light in pretty patterns on the monitor.

I don't really know how graphics cards can be related to a living cell... Maybe like those cool shadow-based light sensing eyespot apparatus some protozoa have? Or something to do with fluorescence in deep sea vibrios and stuff like that? It would help if I knew how a GPU worked, but oh well.

My general take home message is that cells are a but like a computer, I guess. There's loads of little bits that all plug in together in exciting and fiddly ways, interacting and being dependent on each other in order to make the whole cell/computer function properly.

You can also upgrade the system! Taking parts from another computer/cell, and popping them into an existing one, can boost up their capabilities in exciting and useful ways. But today's not the time to go into the wonderful world of GMOs, I need to head to the lab!

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