Building A House, Building A Cell

by: Derek Lowe

I’ve been thinking (for a long time now!) about how to explain to people outside of the field how odd drug discovery really is. And that comes down to explaining how odd things are inside a living cell.

They’re very odd indeed. This has been brought home to me, yet again, by a recent deep dive into the literature on a particular cellular pathway – a complex one, to be sure, but one that illustrates just how multileveled these things have gotten over the last few billion years of tinkering. Here, then, is an attempt at describing the construction of a house, as if it were being done by the processes that take place inside the cell.

First, the tools. There are hammers and saws and power tools of all kinds, of course, but they behave differently than you’re used to. As they do inside the cell, they float and wander around to find their places and to do their jobs. Some of the hammers have screwdrivers or saw blades poking out of the back of their handles – if the hammer end senses a nail within range, it will start pounding away, and likewise the saw blade spins up to full activity if it sees a piece of wood with the appropriate “Cut here” mark on it. There are dozens of such marks, maybe hundreds (nobody knows for sure), and some saws respond to several of them, while others only seem to care about one. What makes these marks? Various colored pencils wandering about the construction site – they seem to sense patterns in the wood grain, or particular arrangements of boards, that make them leave their individual marks. Looking closely, some of these are also marking each other, if they happen to come within range.

The hammers are odd in other ways. Some hammers whack onto other types of hammer if they see them, and this can lead to the second hammer suddenly changing into a different variety – claw, roofing, tack. Or it might hit another hammer and have it then break into two smaller hammers, or a shower of nails, or a hammer and a handful of colored pencils. Sometimes you’ll see two or three of these smaller tools get screwed back together by various sorts of wandering screwdrivers or wood-glue dispensers, a group of apparently unrelated tools fitting together into something new whose functions can only be guessed at.

But the house is getting built by these weird things. Off in the middle of the construction site there’s a blueprint room, with little page-flipping devices whipping the various plan documents back and forth in complicated patterns. Pages somehow copy themselves when they get into the right orientation, and these pages float up, crumple themselves, and harden into templates that can interact with all the tools around them. There’s some sort of odd plastic around the blueprint room – some of the tools and plan documents seem to be able to shimmy through it, and some can’t. In fact, there are several kinds of these plastic dividers, you realize, oddly shaped and moving around, and they seem to be part of what sorts the various tools into the right places on the site. The entire house site has a big covering around it as well, with deliveries coming up to it from outside and somehow squirting, wiggling, and hopping through in various places.

Back closer to the blueprint room, there are all sorts of little tool foundries that pick up on the crumpled plan-document things, spitting out new screwdriver-saws, hammer-screws, sander-sprayers, and other oddities. The only reason that the place isn’t nostril-deep in such things is that the more worn examples of the various tools are themselves getting marked on by colored pencil-bearing tools in turn, ones that somehow sense the scuff marks, dulled saw blades, or rattling noises, and once such tools get marked, they get red ribbons stuck onto them in various places and get pulled, ribbon-first, into grinding waste disposal machines.

These, on close inspection, are made up of lots of saws, hammers, and so on, arranged in circles, and various small tool pieces come flying out the back ends of these things, aimed at the tool foundries that are cranking out new versions. In fact, everything seems to be made out of something else. Combinations of screwdrivers, planes, grinding wheels, nail guns, glue dispensers and all sorts of other devices are constantly assembling and coming apart again, and somehow they encounter piles of boards, connectors and nails, whirl around in dizzying patterns, and move on, leaving behind complete joists and assemblies. The scent of freshly cut wood attracts drywall-installing assemblies and shingle-attachers, themselves made up out of bizarre arrays of smaller tools strung together, and they in turn leave completed work behind them. Wood frames that have had drywall show up on one side of them seem to be attractive to brick and siding devices, more tools made out of tools, which come along to them and crawl up and sideways, laying down finished materials as they go.

When you look closely at the bricks, you find that they’re made up of tiny latticework of nails and screws, stuck together. The siding is assembled from smaller parts, too – pieces of it that were left over from the installation devices are getting red-ribboned and hauled off to be recycled. Everything’s getting repurposed all the time. Tools are materials; materials are tools. It’s hard to tell what’s being built and what’s being torn down, or what’s being worked on versus what’s doing the work, but a house is being built, remodeled, and maintained somehow in this buzzing cloud.

Looking down the street, you realize that there are hundreds, thousands, millions of similar construction sites and buildings, of all different shapes and sizes, stretching off into the distant hills. It’s where you live. It’s where we all live. It’s living, itself.

Disclosure: None.