Nakajima, M. et al. Reconstitution of circadian oscillation of cyanobacterial KaiC phosphorylation in vitro. Science 308, 414–415 (2005). DOI: 10.1126/science.1108451
I have a strong belief that people are way too oversensitive and dismissive towards topics they consider to be “pretentious.” Don’t get me wrong - I’m not a fan of jargon or elitism, but I think that a lot of otherwise well-intentioned people are so anti-pretentiousness that they wind up completely writing off huge, really interesting ideas and ways of thinking. Like for example, I remember in college people would always joke about “postmodernism” as if it were so vague and nebulous that it didn’t mean anything, when actually it obviously does mean something and it totally makes sense and has really clearly shaped the way we all think about everything. People write off all sorts experimental movies and books that are totally amazing, but I think these people could really get off on the content if they could just let down their guard for a while. Every academic field probably has something like “postmodernism” that everyone thinks is just jargon-filled bullshit but is actually super interesting if you could shut up and get over your “2 cool 4 school” attitude.
In biology, this topic is called “Systems Biology.” All over the streets you hear students claiming that Systems Biology is just a meaningless buzz-word catch-all for describing any biology done on computers, that its just a set of terminology you throw on your grants and papes to make them seem “sexier” and more “in the now" as the kids say. This is obviously not true, as anyone who has read even the first page of Uri Alon’s "Introduction to Systems Biology" textbook (which is literally all I’ve read of that book but my spine is still tingling) can tell you.
SO: For anyone who thinks that Systems Biology is just an excuse to wear European thick-rimmed eyeglasses and hang out in newly designed avant garde architecture steel-n-glass biology buildings, please take a serious and personal moment to have a true experience with this deep, ancient and simple beauty that emanates from this sick pape.
Nearly all living things have some type of circadian clock. Different times of day present different challenges and opportunities, and having a built-in clock helps us prepare to take purchase on these. While the circadian clocks in humans operate on a pretty complicated mechanism, there are much simpler clocks in more ancient organisms.
In cyanobacteria, we already knew that only three proteins are required for the circadian rhythm. What’s more (and whats way sicker) is that the circadian rhythm can function totally fine even if you completely block both transcription and translation. WHAT?
What the psychadelic magicians of this study did was to take those three proteins, put them in a test tube with ATP, and show that these three proteins take turns adding and then removing phosphate groups from themselves in a feedback loop that takes 24 hours to complete. That’s it. Its just a chemical reaction between three proteins, in a test tube, that is fine-tuned to take 24 hours to repeat, and from that 24 hour cycle the organism can read out the time.
I think that is the bleeding heart of the systems approach: you can take the qualitative behavior of a biological process (circadian rhythm, for example) and understand it as the result of an interacting system of parts (three proteins in an ATP-dependent autophosphorylation and de-phosphorylation cycle). You can’t just study each individual protein by itself, the whole thing only makes sense when viewed as a system. Is that really so elite and complicated, you pricks? If you can just take a break from obsessing about which field is cool and which field is pretentious, you could devote a little more time to seeing the only thing that really matters: what is really sick right now?
(That picture up there also proves that if you’re opposed to systems biology, you will miss out on some very groovy Western Blots).