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Astonishing documentary: Secret Life – the Hidden Life of the Cell

November 28, 2012 - Posted in Science Posted by:

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If there’s one thing you watch today (well, other than wall-to-wall coverage of The Hobbit* and perhaps some videos of sorting algorithms explained through folk dance), it needs to be this.

Secret Universe – The Hidden Life Of the Cell from pbbes on Vimeo.

In this astonishing hour-long BBC documentary released just a month ago, David Tennant narrates the story of what happens when our basic components – cells – come under attach from a virus (in this case, a common respiratory disease-causing virus, the adenovirus).

Not only is it brilliantly beautiful, but also educational – we don’t just see various spherical (or not) objects interacting, but the molecular details making them up. And it’s genuinely thrilling – I was more gripped watching this than I have been watching major Hollywood blockbusters. Yes, I’m a giant nerd in some ways (especially about this stuff), but it’s also really that good.

When I was doing my molecular biology degree earlier this century, we had nothing so detailed. We had to rely on diagrams and our imagination to provide an understanding of how everything interacted – I’m glad to say, I appear to have gotten it right. Happy thought :)

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* For those of us in New Zealand. I managed to escape the insanity occurring in central Wellington by heading as far south for lunch as I could while remaining on the island, huzzah!



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  • http://www.sticknz.net Peter Kerr

    Well explained, thanks

  • aimee whitcroft

    Cheers :)

  • Brendan Moyle

    I agree- excellent explanation that made it sound like a lot of humour in it too.

    Likewise, didn’t appreciate the NASA pot-stirring either. Was wondering if there was some upcoming funding decision they were trying to influence. It’s a very cool discovery with big astrobiological consequences. But, mmm, not a great delivery.

  • aimee whitcroft

    Yeah, I was wondering the same thing. On the other hand, NASA’s _always_ looking for more money, being as perennially cash-strapped as they are…

    So yes – awesome discovery, but poor delivery could lead to a bit of a backlash. Will be interesting to see what happens :) I really enjoyed science writer Ed Yong’s tweet this morning:

    “You know what gets me about the NASA thing? I had to be the “measured” one. I want to be the excited, awed one but that rug was pulled out.”

    Indeed. I retweeted it.

  • http://www.stevekass.com stevekass

    You write:

    “They then looked at the cells themselves, to seeing whether the As+ group had actually incorporated arsenic into its structures and functions. And it had! There were clear indications that arsenic had been incorporated into DNA – the As+ group had high levels of arsenic and low levels of phosphorus in its DNA fraction, whereas the control group had low levels of arsenic, but high levels of phosphorus. It also looks like the As+ group had incorporated arsenic into other of its biomolecules, including proteins and small molecular weight metabolites.”

    The actual story isn’t so compelling. The As+/P- group did NOT have high levels of arsenic. They had levels that were slightly higher than the As-/P+ group, but hardly high. They were only high when considered as a ratio to the P levels, which were 99% depleted in that group. But of that 99% lost phosphorus, little, if any, was replaced with arsenic. (See Table S1 of the supplementary materials, which is more revealing than Table 1 of the paper: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/science.1197258/DC1 )

    Also, while there was evidence to support the hypothesis that arsenic had been incorporated into DNA, there was NO evidence to suggest that the As+/P- was distinct in this regard. For all we know, there’s just as much arsenic in the DNA of the As-/P+ group (and in wild bacteria as well). We have no clue if or how an occasional As-for-P replacement affects the biochemical processes. See page 3 of the article. The authors failed to look at that question. There’s no scientific reason they didn’t report results for the same “synchrotron X-ray studies” on both groups. In fact, they should have, because those results would have been a critical test of their hypothesis.

    Either they ran the tests, but the results invalidated their hypeworthy hypothesis (and were therefore suppressed), or they didn’t run the tests (in which case it’s hard to believe their primary goal was scientific truth – to evaluate a hypothesis).

    Call me cynical, but if I had to guess (and the lead author’s “Iron Lisa” website gives me no pause), I’d say the authors (and Science Magazine) valued publicity, even if it’s mostly hype and confabulation, over scientific truth.

    Steve Kass

  • aimee whitcroft

    Fair enough. As I said – I simplified q bit to get the message across. ‘High’ is an extremely relative term without putting numbers and proportions to it – the point I was making was that there was a discernable difference.

    And yup, read pg 3 (read it a coupla times, in fact) – again, simply trying to portray, as simply as possible, what is said. I’m happy to add a note, however, specifying that ‘high’ was meant proportionally…

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