Mystery at the Heart of Life

The secret life of cells /

Our bodies are made up of some 100 trillion cells. We tend to think of cells as static, because that’s how they were presented to us in textbooks. In fact, the cell is like the most antic, madcap, crowded (yet fantastically efficient) city you can picture. And at its heart lies a mystery—or I should say, several mysteries—involving three special kinds of molecules: DNA, RNA, and proteins.

These molecules are assembled into long chains called polymers, and are uniquely suited for the roles they play. More importantly, life absolutely depends upon them. We have to have DNA, RNA, and protein all present and active at the same time for a living organism to live.

How they work together so optimally and efficiently is not merely amazing, but also a great enigma, a mystery that lies at the heart of life itself.

Madcap Copying and Keystone Cops

First, a word about these special molecules and how they are produced.

We begin with the nucleus at the center of a cell. The nucleus is something like the cell’s Library of Congress, where instructions are stored for making most everything the cell needs.

The medium on which the information is stored is DNA, two long chains linked together and wound around each other—like two strands of wires wrapped about each other (except that the “wire” is made up of small units called nucleotides linked together). The nucleotides come in four different shapes that we have named with four letters: A, C, T, and G. These chains are linked together in a very specific way.

Imagine DNA as a long jigsaw puzzle exactly two pieces wide, with only four kinds of jigsaw pieces (or nucleotides): A, C, T, and G. Along each row, or strand, the pieces can be ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 10 / November 27, 2014
  1. Editors’ Note
  2. Deadly, Healing Medicine

    I had to ingest poison if I hoped to live. /

  3. A More Genuine Sympathy

    Our hope is particular, personal, and unapologetically material. /

  4. ‘If Two Be One’

    The thoughts of a devoted wife when her husband is away on business. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff

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