The Steampunk Satyricon

Friday, September 17, 2010

Terms of Estrangement

As a shiny new science writer, there are certain things I do out of a sense of duty. One of them is listening to Science Friday on NPR, not an unpleasant way to spend one's time. But one of the things that makes it even better is logging on to Second Life and participating in the live chat amongst the avatars in the virtual audience gathered on Science Island. Naturally, it's a fairly science-savvy group, but a while ago, they completely left me in the dust during a discussion of viruses and cell structures.

To be honest, of all the sciences, I'm probably least interested in biology and the life sciences. Here, I am very much out of step with the broader public whose interest in science so often seems to stem from an interest in medical science and health research, the sorts of things that should interest anyone with a carbon-based, organic body.

The terms being thrown around in chat were all related to life science. They were completely foreign to me and fairly intimidating. But then, I went to look them up. I found nearly all of those strange, exotic terms in the first one or two chapters of basic cell biology text books. Scary as they seemed, they were all Bio 101 terms. Some examples:

Eucaryotes and Procaryotes -- All life is classified as either a eucaryote (also spelled "eukaryote") or one of the two types of procaryotes (or "prokaryotes"). A eucaryote is a type of organism that is usually multicellular (animals, plants, fungi) in which the DNA of the cell is restricted to a nucleus -- a separate, bounded region within the cell. The word is of Greek origin and translates as "truly nucleated." Eucaryotes usually have relatively large, complicated cells. Procaryotes, organisms in which the DNA is not concentrated within a nucleus, are typically single-celled organisms. There are two types of procaryotes: bacteria (or eubacteria) and archaea (or archaebacteria).

Mitochondria -- A structure found within a eucaryotic cell separated from the other parts by a membrane (just like the nucleus is separated from the rest of the cell interior by its own membrane). They are often referred to as the "power plants" of a eucaryotic cell. Mitochondria use oxygen to oxidize fuel (i.e. food) and convert it to energy for the cell to go about its cell-y business.
Chloroplasts -- Found in plants and algae (which are single celled eucaryotes). Chloroplasts allow plants to perform photosynthesis: they absorb carbon dioxide and water and, using energy from sunlight, turn them into carbohydrates.
Organelles -- Chloroplasts, mitochondria and nuclei are examples of organelles, sub-structures within a eucaryotic cell that are separated from each other by their own membranes.
Cytoplasm -- The stuff inside of a cell but outside of the cell's organelles. (What kind of stuff? Protein type stuff that seems to be beyond Bio 101.)
Cyanobacterium -- A bacterium that is capable of photosynthesis. It soaks up carbon dioxide and sunlight and spits out oxygen.
Fungi -- Something we've all heard of, but how many people know what a fungus really is? The mushrooms you put in your spaghetti sauce, like all fungi, are eucaryotic organisms that have mitochondria in their cells like animals do, but no chloroplasts. No chloroplasts means no photosynthesis (and no getting classified as a plant). Instead of sunlight and carbon dioxide, fungi live off of the nutrients that come from the dead and decaying cells of other living things. Mangia!
Protists -- Single-celled eucaryotic organisms like protozoa. (You probably saw protozoa through a microscope when looking at a drop of pond water in elementary school science class.)
Heterotrophic -- Most animals are heterotrophic, that is, they obtain nutrients from external organic and inorganic sources.
Autotrophic -- Most plants are autotrophic, meaning they use inorganic sources to build nutrients on their own (think photosynthesis).
On several occasions, I've "Tsk, tsk'd" people for avoiding math classes, even as I was expending considerable effort and energy to avoid taking biology classes for the opportunity to take an ever more challenging succession of physics courses, each of which I nearly flunked. But if I had taken a college-level biology class, it would have stripped me of the opportunity to learn, once again, how to not be intimidated by science... but it also would have given me the foundation I needed to follow Second Life Science Friday chat without the whole "WTF?" factor. Tsk, tsk.

Second Life, where you can choose to be virtually hunky. 
Or would you rather be a mule?

  • Essential Cell Biology, 3rd Ed., Bruce Alberts, Denis Bray, et al. (C)2010, published by Garland Science, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4th Ed., Bruce Alberts, Alexander Johnson, et al. (C)2010, published by Garland Science, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Integrated Principles of Zoology, 13 Ed., Cleveland P. Hickman, Jr., Larry S. Roberts, et al. (C) 2006, McGraw-Hill.

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