By Philip Ball 13 December On the other hand, some biologists fear that chemistry, in the form of molecular biology, has become so installed at the heart of their subject now that genome sequencing and protein crystallography are routine, cheap and fast, that the living entity itself has been lost in the process. The problem is partly that there seems to be no level of magnification at which all that is important can be discerned.
Go to the molecules and you lose life itself. Zoom out to the cell or organism and you are overwhelmed by the complexity and unable to find mechanism. But there is also this: interventions that might seem clumsy, crude or minor may turn out to have transformative consequences for a cell. It was a surprise, for example, when in Shinya Yamanaka and Kazutoshi Takahashi showed that just four molecules all protein transcription factors are enough to persuade a mature adult cell to revert to the early stage of development in which it is a pluripotent stem cell, able to turn into any tissue type.
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Against this dramatic revision of what cells were thought to be capable of, it seemed less of a stretch when stem-cell pioneer Yoshiki Sasai claimed in to have made differentiated somatic cells lymphocytes revert to a pluripotent state by nothing more than exposure to chemical stress — specifically to acidic conditions. Sasai was cleared of any fraud himself, but was severely criticised in the Japanese press for mismanagement of his group and committed suicide later that year. What is so perplexing about biology is that sometimes simple or broad-brush perturbations can make all the difference, while on other occasions what look likely to be catastrophic interventions are ignored.
What this means is that we should be wary of imagining that life is indeed just the sum of its chemical parts. It will also need to determine how principles of function and design translate between them. Attempts to make synthetic living cells from the molecules up 7 might flounder, then, until those principles are understood. C R Woese, Microbiol. Use your Parade. Don't have an account? Sign up. Create a Parade.
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