Monday, September 03, 2007

things fall apart, it's scientific

There are these teensy but critical structures in our bodies called microfilaments and microtubules. They sort of get short-changed or taken for granted when you're learning biology. They're kind of like the frame of a house. No one really looks at a finished house and appreciates how sturdy those frames are, since they can't really be seen and they don't have a whole lot of aesthetic value. But if that frame was flimsy, you can kiss that house goodbye in short order.

So microfilaments and microtubules give cells shape and provide them with some structure, not too much and not too little. But what really fascinates me about them is not this, their steadfast reliability. What I think is cool is that microfilaments and microtubules, by themselves, are transient.

Microfilaments and microtubules do this thing where they basically form and fall apart, over and over and over again. It takes a lot of energy, this dynamic instability, but messing with it will pretty much destine a cell for the great beyond. So, there they are, these microfilaments and microtubules, taking their little pieces and adding them up, waiting for something to stabilize it, but not waiting for very long- if the right protein doesn't show up, they collapse back into their individual pieces.

That's its task, rolling that rock up that hill just to have it come back down again so that it can start over. But oh, I take great comfort in the importance of falling apart. If they weren't fractured into their little pieces, at just the right time, they might mistakenly latch onto the wrong protein, or form a self-involved mess. Even when certain microfilaments and microtubules have found the right proteins and stabilized themselves, there still have to be some that are floating around free to assemble and disassemble, over and over again. Some percent of them have to keep that unsteady freedom. And I love the notion that instability is a constant, coursing through our bodies, all the time.

It's this weird paradox, because almost everyone I know is uncomfortable (to varying degrees) with the idea that nothing is constant save change. People talk about waiting for things to settle down. And yet, all the time, in our very fabric, we're falling apart and picking ourselves up and putting ourselves right back together. In certain states, we're okay with latching onto others and at other times, we'd just as soon fall apart first. When things really settle down, when you've achieved total stability, guess what? You're dead.

Maybe it's a sign of my off-kilter nature that I take such comfort in this notion. I'm not really better at handling change than anyone else. But I suppose I expect it more, and tend to believe that when people console you with it all works out for the best, they're actually talking about dynamic instability.

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