How do our pan-pipes work?

There isn’t a single man-made mechanism that nature hasn’t already invented during its almost 4 billion years of trial and error.  Or is it trail and error?  There is more than a suspicion among research biologists that many things happen in bacteria, plants and animals — including ourselves thousands of times a second — that oughtn’t to happen according to the normal laws of physics and chemistry.

Quantum intervention seems to be going on.  Of course, quantum intervention could be by random processes or by design from a deeper source than we’re aware of — but nobody knows and it’s possible the nobody will ever know.

Back to subject — “Nature hasn’t invented a wheel to get about” you may respond to my first sentence.  This is true.  But then nature didn’t give us smooth highways to run about on either.  Legs are infinitely better at all the different uses to which they’re put.

But nature has invented plenty of wheels inside our cells — cog wheels, balance wheels, what have you. And here are also conveyor belts, Archimedes’ screws, fork-lift trucks, elevators and every other device that might be found in an engineering workshop –  but very small!  There are even sausage machines — called ribosomes — which extrude long links of protein. The difference is that while we normally make half a dozen types of sausages — Cumberland sausage is my favourite — our body cells make over 100,000 entirely different proteins that will carry out entirely different tasks inside the cell.  Our ribosomes are pretty versatile!

In contrast to normal engineering workshops, there’s no space in which an engineer can walk about. That’s also crammed full of machines — machines making molecules, machine making energy and machines which move molecules around.  In the small spaces in between all the machinery it is, of course, water, not air. Unlike other events outside living cells when atoms and molecules barge around at great speed ricocheting off one another, in a cell they are gently fitted together like Lego blocks.

Research biologists are always intrigued when they come across yet another new nano-machine in our cells. One that they’ve come across recently is a protein consisting of a long single helix that regularly doubles back on itself until it resembles a set of pan-pipes. There’s a lot that’s unique about this one apparently so if you’ve any ideas about how these cellular pan-pipes work then Professor Martin Caffrey at Trinity College Dublin, and his 29 multinational researchers would be delighted to hear from you.

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