Is the Cell Really a Machine?

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sciborg2

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« on: August 12, 2019, 06:40:39 pm »
Is the Cell Really a Machine?

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It has become customary to conceptualize the living cell as an intricate piece of machinery, different to a man-made machine only in terms of its superior complexity. This familiar understanding grounds the conviction that a cell's organization can be explained reductionistically, as well as the idea that its molecular pathways can be construed as deterministic circuits. The machine conception of the cell owes a great deal of its success to the methods traditionally used in molecular biology.

However, the recent introduction of novel experimental techniques capable of tracking individual molecules within cells in real time is leading to the rapid accumulation of data that are inconsistent with an engineering view of the cell. This paper examines four major domains of current research in which the challenges to the machine conception of the cell are particularly pronounced: cellular architecture, protein complexes, intracellular transport, and cellular behaviour. It argues that a new theoretical understanding of the cell is emerging from the study of these phenomena which emphasizes the dynamic, self-organizing nature of its constitution, the fluidity and plasticity of its components, and the stochasticity and non-linearity of its underlying processes.
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Francis Buck

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« Reply #1 on: August 15, 2019, 02:52:11 am »
I think that comparing cells (and organisms in general) to a 'machine' is mostly a result of humanity, as of yet, lacking a better, more precise go-to analogy for 'the thing that a cell is like', much in the same way we often compare the human brain to a 'computer' even in spite of realizing that this is an insufficient descriptor of what a human brain actually is.

The issue, of course, is that when we start using this sort of shorthand terminology, it's bound to get people to start taking it over-literally.

This is one of the problems I have with the more recent trend of equating organisms with algorithms. It's not that the analogy isn't apt -- in fact it's startlingly effective (for those still startled by such things) -- but rather I feel it risks repeating the same reductionist perspective that leads to the issue at hand.

Barring any forthcoming breakthroughs in the appropriate scientific fields, a cell isn't anything other than a cell, and a cell -- like the human brain -- is something we just do not yet fully grasp the nature of.

TLEILAXU

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« Reply #2 on: August 15, 2019, 02:00:51 pm »
Not sure I get the point. I mean, I'd say most biologists have at least some idea that stochastic and dynamic behavior is important and present at small scales. Like, it's not anything new that the cell is not a literal 'machine' like a microwave oven or something, it's just useful shorthand to say e.g. 'transcriptional machinery'.