Little Things

or, The Lives of the Flu Cell

Here’s a wonderful animation developed by pharmaceutical biotech company Zirus, Inc., and shared with us by National Public Radio:

This little animation was great fun to watch with with my 8-yr-old-with-mad-scientist tendencies; and it was just the thing to help our 3 1/2 year-old daughter understand why she had to stay home from the neighbor girl’s birthday party today.

For me, microbiology always communicates a sense of secret revelation – it is so intimate, our very flesh & blood, and yet so intricate and strange. What a wonder to be able to see some small portion of the invisible entities that underlie our physical life! It makes me want to hunt around for my old copy of Lewis Thomas’ classic Lives of a Cell, or go find a copy of Lewis Wolpert’s contemporary version, How We Live & Why We Die.

I’ve been fascinated with the inner workings of cells ever since my high-school freshman biology text left me with an unanswered question: O.K., I can see how all these structures move around when a cell divides (& I’ve diagrammed it to death…) but what makes them move? Convinced I’d missed something in the textbook, I searched back & forth through the chapter, but never found the answer. It turns out the information wasn’t there, because, at that time, we didn’t really know — but we do now.

The Zirus animation, wonderful as it is, gives me that same sense of missing information. It’s scientifically accurate & detailed,1 but completely unlabeled.  We know those “yellow knobby things called keys” all over the outside of the virus may be “keys” in function – but that’s not what scientists call them. I think those “blue peanutty” chomping “chefs” that make new proteins are ribosomes, but I’m not certain. And if I want to learn more about the thing that duplicates the virus DNA inside the cell nucleus, I’m left guessing what the name of “that big pink molecule” really is. The animation brilliantly explains a complex, multi-step biological process in one fell swoop, but ultimately leaves us as outsiders looking in, without the vocabulary keys that would help us gain entry into the world of biological science.

The original story, Flu Attack: How a Virus Invades Your Body, does include a more in-depth answer to one of the points in the video:

In our video we ask, if a flu virus inside your body can multiply by the millions within seconds, why don’t we topple over and die quickly?

Here’s a better, longer answer than the one in the video. First, some new viruses get caught in mucus and other fluids inside your body and are destroyed. Other viruses get expelled in coughs and sneezes. Second, lots of those new viruses are lemons. They don’t work that well.

That second point is important — the virus gets reproduced with variations, some of which work better or worse than others. And reproduction with variation is a powerful key concept, or to use a slightly different metaphor, a threshold concept in biology, that opens the door to whole new realms of understanding.

I would have liked to see more such key terms & concepts worked into the video. Nonetheless, a visualization like this opens up whole new worlds of biological narrative, making it easy for parents to share the excitement of science and point the way to deeper questions & further exploration.

  1. Indeed, each time I watch, I notice more detail — including the cytoskeleton “tracks” that I looked for all those years ago.

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