“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” the dying replicant Roy says of his off-world experiences in one of the final scenes of BladeRunner. As a structural biologist I often feel I could say the same thing, all the more so now that I have read David Goodsell’s “The Machinery of Life”.
This is a wonderful book that gives fascinating and wide-ranging insights into the molecular components that work together to give us and other organisms the gift of life. The text is clear, accessible and provides a good lay introduction to biology at the molecular level inside and outside the cell. But what makes this book special are the pictures. They are sumptuous.
Wide and close-up views of molecular crowding within a bacterial cell. The blue molecules are protein enzymes. Water molecules (cyan) appear almost triangular. (No place here for homeopathic ‘memory’).
Goodsell, a structural biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in California, has set himself the task of providing a realistic representation of the molecular landscapes within living organisms, a vista that is beneath our everyday sight because of the extremely small size of the components. He has fused his scientific and artistic abilities to generate the stunning images that are generously scattered throughout his book. In every case he has drawn on the latest research (the 2nd edition that I read was published in 2009 and is a significant update of the 1993 original) and endeavoured to render the molecules of life with the appropriate shape, size and number in the various compartments of living organisms — the nuclear and cytoplasmic environments within cells and the blood and tissue fluids that surround them. He has been careful to use the same scale throughout for these intracellular and extracellular panoramas so that the images in the book can be compared.
When it comes to molecular structure, I’m a pro. I spend my days peering at the byzantine architecture of proteins and RNA. I know my amino acids from my nucleic acids, my main-chains from my side-chains and can tell at a glance if molecular interactions are hydrophobic or hydrogen bonded. But my focus is usually mechanistic and tied to one or two molecules at a time. How does this protease work? How does that fatty acid molecule stick to albumin (shown below). But even if my stated ambition is to take a holistic view of biology, the day job too often reduces me to, well, a reductionist.
Human serum albumin (HSA) with a cargo of fatty acid molecules (yellow). The protein colours indicate the three similar domains within the protein. From the crystal structure.
That is no bad thing when you are trying to figure out a mechanism, to pull apart the nuts and the bolts to see how the molecule actually works. But I have to remind myself every now and then to climb out of the tunnels dug into the details of the handful of molecules that my group investigates to have a look around at the wider picture. With Goodsell’s book on my shelf that will now be a lot easier. The views that he offers are beautiful, amazing and mind-bogglingly complex; they offer the best picture we have of the molecular context of the biochemistry of life.
I spent quite some time just poring over the pictures in this book, absorbing the detail. I am glad that Goodsell decided to label his images only very sparsely, so that the view of the crowded cell is not cluttered with artificial words. The variety is wonderful. I gazed at the innards of cell nuclei, the fibres of muscle cells, the synaptic connections between nerve cells, the seemingly innocuous scene of poliovirus penetrating and killing a cell. Strangely, the detail is almost unnerving. I know I biology works, but how can all those molecules possibly manage to find one another and work together in such fantastically complicated environments!?!
Childishly, the experience reminded me of losing myself in the lovingly detailed illustrations in Richard Scarry’s Busytown books. Remember those? I hope that the charm and richly colourful detail of the Goodsell’s pictures might ensnare the non-specialist reader in the wonders of molecular biology.
A human B cell releases a packet (green) of antibody molecules (tan, Y-shaped) into the blood serum on the right of the image. HSA molecules appear as pale green triangles in the serum.
If I were overly artistic in my pretensions I would say that Goodsell is exploring the space between science and the imagination with his illustrations. But I am plainer speaking and contend that there is no space between them–the overlap is too great. Goodsell’s artistic book is simply a wonderful exemplar of the power of scientific imagination.
Though he has worked hard to root his images in established facts, Goodsell is careful to acknowledge their limitations. The structures of many molecules are still only vaguely known and our knowledge of the concentrations and cellular distributions of others is incomplete. So there is some risk in presenting these images since pictures can have a power beyond words. But I am quite happy to live with that and am grateful to Goodsell for his vision and industry.