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Signal Transduction: Poetry in Motion

A signaling schematic (but not human due to cell wall).
A signaling schematic (but not human due to cell wall).

When I was in school, the scary parts of biology were cellular respiration and the synthesis and degradation pathways of the 20 amino acids. Each of us probably has our own personal bionightmares. For today’s students it could be all those interconnected pathways that depict the signals, receptors, second messengers and beyond that enable cells to function and specialize.

STD to us doesn’t mean what was once called a venereal disease. It means signal transduction.

Given the staggering molecular details that underlie signaling, biology professor Robert Blystone of Trinity University in San Antonio was stunned when senior Kristen Gill, a biology major with an English minor headed to medical school next year, offered an astonishingly elegant and astute answer to a question. In their words:

120px-Cyclic-adenosine-monophosphate-3D-spacefillDr. Blystone: I was leading a class through a signal transduction exercise. I put in front of them the Wikipedia figure. I asked the students to prepare a not more than 100 word summary of the essence of the figure. Below is a student’s effort at the exercise.

Endless arrows
Endless molecules
Endless receptors

How can so much fit into one tiny cell?

How can so little create an entire organism?

External environment

External cues
Through the phospholipid bilayer

Internal cascades
Internal inhibitions
Internal inhibitions of inhibitors
To grant molecules access to the nucleus

Create the proteins that give rise to the
External environment
Internal cascades

1 cell, 2 cells, 4 cells, more
Divide, communicate, specialize, relocate
Repeat, repeat, repeat

120px-Cyclic-adenosine-monophosphate-3D-balls-2Brilliant, Kristen and thanks Dr. B. You’ve started something! I invite readers to submit creative DNA writing – haiku, sonnets, I once met a girl from Nantucket, anything goes.

A few posts coming up will highlight essays about DNA science from young participants in contests that I’m involved with. Teens’ comfort with DNA science is amazing. Much to my surprise, it turned out that the target audience for my gene therapy book was science-savvy 15-year-olds, according to a review  in School Library Journal. The Katniss/Tris crowd. My agent and I were astonished. But that explained the glazed eyeballs of audiences for my book talk who went to school before DNA’s discovery as the genetic material.


Today’s teens and twenty-somethings grew up familiar and comfortable with DNA science. I can’t wait to find out what they will accomplish within the next decade with all those genome sequences at their fingertips.

  1. Re: “Today’s teens and twenty-somethings grew up familiar and comfortable with DNA science.”

    I was reminded of this: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    What we’ve seen here, and in about the Annila and Bavenstock (2014) paradigm shifting publication, is evidence that there are still many opponents who must pass on. When they’re gone, what’s known about the conserved molecular mechanisms in species from microbes to man will enable the next generation to begin again. They will make the scientific progress that’s been retarded by theorists.

    In context: A college freshman brought to my attention the fact that glycine is the only achiral amino acid. It’s substitution in the GnRH peptide appears to have stabilized the genome of every vertebrate that shares the amino acid substitution, which links food odors via networks of glycosylation, to the pheromone-controlled physiology of reproduction.

    From the mouths of babes?

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