Molecular biology is moving quickly from cartoons to pictures to movies. It used to be that the cell illustrations in biology textbooks were either blurry, grainy micrographs or fanciful, cartoonish diagrams. But pictures based on accurate knowledge of protein structure are becoming more common, and now we are moving into the realm of time with accurate movies of cellular phenomena. It’s a good time to be alive. The most entertaining recent movie short from the bacterial world is this terrific thriller from a lab at Purdue: “T4: the Tiny Terminator”. This animation is an accurate portrayal of the baseplate mechanism for a virus that attacks a bacterium. This is a film of what you would actually see if you could see things that can’t be seen. Here’s the page (look for the movie link in the upper left, or simply download it here): Virus makes its movie screen debut.
I’ve always thought the images of phage-like viruses attacking bacteria had a frightening, sinister aspect. Bacteriophages have these nasty buglike legs and bloated icosohedral bellies, and they squat on the bacterial membrane like pestilent, bloodhungry mosquitos and disgorge their lethal payload. Nevertheless they are, after all, simply a parcel of a few specialized molecules. Even so, this new animation, mesmerizing in the extreme, does nothing to dispel a palpable sense of malevolence. The great gift of modern molecular biology is that it can now begin to show mechanically how we are manifestations of the improbable molecules that make up viruses and cells. Are they sinister? Are we? If we are capable of evil, then so are they. Or, coming at it from the other direction, if we refuse to acknowledge their potential to be sinister, then we must deny ourselves that same privilege. We’re all playing the same game.