Thursday, 08 August 2013 11:42

Biology Commentaries in Space and Time

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ElephantEva Marder wants young scientists to learn
from the wisdom of “grandmother elephants.”
Photo credit: PJ KAPDostie, Wikimedia Commons
How big is an antibody? An illustration in a biology textbook might depict an antibody that's a third of the size of a cell, 150 times larger than an antibody actually is in relation to a cell. Of course, it would be impossible to draw an antibody to scale in a textbook. Even if the illustration of the cell took up an entire sheet of 8 ½ x 11 inch paper, the antibody would only be about 0.02 inches, a speck too small to see. So how can one get a sense for the size of proteins on the surface of cells in the body? Michael Reth, professor at the Albert-Ludwigs University of Freiburg and the Max Planck Institute, gives readers a mental image in a commentary in Nature Immunology.

Reth compares an antibody on the surface of a lymphocyte to a walk in the park. If an antibody were the size of a human, the surface of a lymphocyte would be three times larger than Central Park (or the same size as the Otter Creek Park in Louisville, KY). A textbook shows the antibody to be the equivalent of the size of the Empire State building on an Upper Manhattan-sized lymphocyte, writes Reth. His walk-in-the-park metaphor for proteins is a lovely way to imagine tiny proteins on the vast cell surface, searching for receptors, or forming micro-clusters.

What do elephants have to do with cell biologists? Old grandmother elephants "maintain the cultural knowledge of their tribes," writes Eva Marder, professor at Brandeis University, in eLife. Marder takes note the vital roles that grandmother elephants play and reminds young scientists to think about "how we came to know what we know." She reminds readers that early scientists used simple experiments to answer tough questions, and emerging complex technologies might lead to "fuzzy thinking" and science that will fade from cultural consciousness. Like elephants, scientists should never forget that great science can be done with limited technology and clear thinking.

Christina Szalinski

Christina is a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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