What makes biology beautiful?
Let me count the ways.
1. It can be a mystery. A detective story on steroids. A search for a macromolecular culprit, buried in the midst of a pile of data. Working in a lab can mean months spent hunting down a rogue protein. If you’re working to cure a disease, the protein might leave telltale tracks. So biologists get to explore the cell for clues.
We investigate the polypeptide suspects, making changes to the genome to narrow down the possibilities. We interrogate potential partners in crime, other cellular citizens shown to interact with the protein in different contexts. And when we solve the molecular mystery and find a protein that gets mutated to cause a disease, or a protein that can cure an ailment, we’ve saved more lives than Sherlock Holmes could ever hope to save. We’ve caught the criminal before it commits the crime.
2. It’s ‘real’ magic. It’s exhilarating to be at the bench, eyes glued to the microscope, and watch a tiny worm grow, and glow green, because of the the genetic changes you’ve engineered. We get to manipulate invisible strands of information.
Biologists inscribe things in the book of life, a book so tiny we’d have to shrink to 10^9 times to glimpse it. We get to craft glowing mice, grow organs from scratch, code computer programs into DNA, and get the double helix to play origami. Life is magical – and we can make it more so.
3. It’s beautiful. Ever seen a 3D model of DNA? It’s a twirling chaos of color, a structural alphabet captured in the interplay of two strands. Try pondering that heavenly helix without lapsing into a moment of unabashed awe at the chaotic order underlying all of us. I was eight when I saw DNA for the first time.
It was a magical moment; I remember being feeling a bit reverent towards the towering molecular visage. Imagine what it would be like to stroll around a cell. We wouldn’t be able to see – but if we could, if there was some analogy for sight? It’d be a bag of chaotic happenings, molecules whirling around, dancing with the random grace that hallmarks Brownian motion.
Textbooks teach us to believe that the cell is a simple, ordered, geometrical progression of chemical events, a series of colored puzzle pieces fitting into matching holes to affect a chemical reaction. But the wonderful chaos we see, the crowded, cramped, bulging bag of molecular happenings, is a far cry from ordered. It is beautiful in its complexity.
4. It is powerful. I’ve yet to learn what it means to spend 10 years working on a drug, hunting down a protein target and taking a targeting molecule from the cell to the marketplace. But I can’t imagine a higher calling. Careers that involve saving a human life command an automatic respect. Saving one life is an incredible feat; a biologist can save 10 million.
We use the word ‘life’ so often that it is easy to forget how incredible our existence is. We’re a bag of chemicals, a conglomerations of atoms that walks, talks, breathes, and thinks. We are a population of self-aware, segregated bits of information. And we’re figuring out how to reprogram our basic genetic bylaws.
How cool is that?