Monday, May 4, 2015

A Concerted Effort

A predecessor of my wonderful
biochem professor, teaching
geometry (key for structural
diagrams!) in a 14th c.
Euclid mss. (British Library)
Today was the last day of Biochemistry for me. The students will valiantly review for their exam on Wednesday, and I will be walking away with my head full of a new language. It's been very interesting to learn the language, rather than the practice, of biochemistry. I have not spent time in the lab, spending the past month thinking about the work (operations) of art (really, visual surfaces) in Chaucer's dream poems, and the idea of being "lost in thought" as well as the insistence of matter in medieval art. But I've consistently been trying to find my footing within biochemistry's language about the structure and function of proteins. Having studied amino acids and enzymes and carbohydrates and all kinds of saccharides and lipids and finishing up with RNA and DNA, I walk on the very dynamic ground of millions of biochemical reactions a second. Looking at these reactions up close, in human time and scale, I can understand how a protein folds, how RNA can be self-folding - all sorts of things. I can understand that there is a tremendous amount of randomness and reactions that go nowhere, and I can understand that what makes my body work is an enormous series of things "recognizing" each other, and fitting together to produce the reactions that we call living.

Zodiac Figure within
cosmological and
molecular possibility;
Très Riche Heures, 15th c.
(Bibliothèque Nationale)

Where wonder supplants perception is in my inability to conceive of these millions of reactions happening all at the same time, and in concert. I know that they are happening, as I think and type, but I cannot possibly keep track of them all. And yet, because reactions at the cellular and molecular level are happening in concert, I live and breathe. A comment made by my collaborator on this article about how humans live with/overcome/negotiate the (poignancy of) the limits of human perception comes back with full resonance now: cellular reactions don't stop happening with death; cellular activity is as frenetic and energetic as in life - but now, the effort is no longer concerted. Death is, indeed, disconcerting. The idea that hydrophobic amino acids keep right on clustering inside the cell, that carbons are still looking to attach or disconnect, that proteins are still probably somewhere folding is different for me to think through than decay and decomposition. Those two sad terms are written from the point of view of human life. We would need other words to describe cellular activity once it is no longer in concert for the sake and experience of human life. Metabolic persistence? Molecular stamina? Cellular reactions keep happening arguably forever after death. They are eternally persevering in their energy and randomness; they "recognize" each other, however, for purposes other than human living. There is perhaps no greater presence of the post-human than in our own cells. We are always (yes, already) displaced by the energy that preceded us and will endure beyond us. Knowing more about how enzymes operate in antibiotics and laundry soap (for example), opens up thousands of other questions, blunt questions asked obviously. What are the biochemical reactions in operation when I cry? when I feel pleasure? when I'm tired? when I remember? How can I begin to conceptualize the permeability of what I call my body to biochemical reactions in my environment? (microcosm-macrocosm is a start but after that? we are very, very permeable indeed - at all times, in every moment). What are the worlds (let alone proteins) unfolding within the concerted effort of my person without my knowledge or control?  How much of my existence is beyond my perception? That one we've been asking for a while, but it really never gets old, and there are always new answers.

1 comment:

  1. I loved having you in class and will miss teaching without you there next semester!