Monday, November 05, 2007

Complexity in Cell Biology

Fighting Complexity

Cell biologists aim to understand the cell as the smallest unit of life. Each cell in our body contains about 30,000 different genes that code for many more different proteins. Most of these proteins exist in numerous copies within the same cell. We assume that each type of protein has at least one, but most likely several, specific cellular functions. Cell biologists aim to discover these functions by asking: "Which protein does what and how do all these proteins work in concert to regulate the cell as part of the organism?"

One important tool to find the function of a protein is to visualize its location in the context of the overwhelming complexity of a single cell. This can be done by using 'antibodies', sensor proteins that bind only to a very distinct target within the total protein population. Specific antibodies are the 'prime weapon' of the cell biologists to 'fight the cellular complexity' by visually isolating only a tiny subset of proteins. This helps to study their function inside the crowded environment of a cell.

'Cell Portraits' displays images that have been created by using specific antibodies against cellular structures, including the cytoskeletal network (filamentous structures), the cell-to-cell contacts (peripheral dotty lines) and the DNA in the nucleus (egg shaped center of the cell).

Jan Schmoranzer is a cell biologist and physicist at Gunderson Lab, Columbia University