Monday 12 July 2021

The Lives of the Cell

Oldies but Goodies Department: You really should read The Lives of the Cell: notes of a biology watcher by Lewis Thomas [prev].

Yonkies but Goodies Department: everything a  needs to know about the contents of a plant cell . . . drawn by Gdau.I [9½], which arrived for my birthday. I hope it was some recycled school work rather than created specially for me. In any case it's well above the median for what I grew to expect when this drawing was turned in by 1st Year Biology students [19½] at The Institute. 

The annoying thing with the voting age students is that pictures like this were routinely turned in as part of a report about microscopy. With a standard optical microscope, even if the material is stained as well as could be expect, you just can't see that much detail. Mitochondria are about the size of a bacterium like Escherichia coli - 1.5μm - that is just resolvable with the 100x objective lens. But only if you use a drop of oil which exactly the same refractive index as glass to connect the lens with the slide. Without this "immersion oil", the distortion as the light bends at the glass-air-glass transitions fuzzes everything up. It's the same as when a bamboo appears to bend when you put it into water. It's something that spear-fishers have to compensate for if they are going to bring home the bacon.

Ribosomes [the gizmos ⌀20nm which convert mRNA into protein] are about 50x smaller than mitochondria so they are absolutely invisible with bench-top optical equipment. And a lot of the other functional structures - golgi apparatus, vacuoles, endoplasmic reticulum, amyloplasts etc. - are, optically just water; in other words the exact same material at the soup [cytoplasm] in which they all sit. Contrary to what most folks believe, the microscope is of limited use for scoping sub-cellular function. Christian de Duve [R] needed a blender and a bunch of test-tubes [and a brain the size of a planet, of course] to discover lysosomes.

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