The Structure of the Living Cell

One of the goals of modern structural biology is to integrate the two traditionally distinct subfields of structural molecular biology (determination of the structures of macromolecules at atomic resolution) and structural cell biology (general architecture of of the cell and the localization of subcellular structures within it). The end result--as my research advisor at Oxford, Prof. Iain Campbell, often points out--is to be able to make a "molecular movie", at atomic resolution, of the whole cell. (Such a video might look something like this video from XVIVO and Harvard University--previously blogged about by Jake--although it would be interactive and much more detailed.) Professor Campbell laid out this goal and provided a basic introduction to structural biology when he delivered the annual Croonian Prize Lecture to the Royal Society in London on October 4th of this year. Although the presence of bright lights and a ton of cameras didn't do much for the comfort of those in attendance, this means that there's now a high quality video of the presentation (with the accompanying PowerPoint slides) available on the web.

The lecture is aimed at a general educated audience, and although some of the terminology might be a little over the heads of those not familiar with structural biology, it provides a good starting point for exploring the field and learning about where it is heading. Although structural biology was traditionally an incredibly reductionist field, interested primarily in single, static molecules, structural biologists are increasingly studying the interactions between molecules to better understand how a what are otherwise lifeless molecules suddenly spring to life when combined together to form the living cell. Professor Campbell devotes a significant amount of time to the study of molecular interactions by NMR, the technique that we focus most of our work on. If you're interested in learning more about structural biology, it's certainly worth a look.

More like this

I watched that movie from XVIVO and was really disappointed: although the animation is pretty, the physics is all wrong. There's no diffusion or stochastic motion taken into account, so it makes the cell look like a human machine, just smaller---it makes live look intelligently designed. I'm sure it's hard to incorporate the diffusive nature of the cell into a movie, but XVIVO didn't even try!