It used to be that biology class was full of pictures of labeled blobs. You could see why: cells are teeny tiny. It’s hard to see what’s going on in there, and there’s a fair amount of guesswork as to what all the parts do. Everything is called a this-o-some or a that-o-some, which just comes from the Greek for “blob” (okay, it’s Greek for “body,” but it’s the same idea). I count 25 different somes of one kind or another on the Wikipedia organelle page. Parenthesomes! Ejectosomes! Spherosomes!
So you ended up with lots of cartoonish diagrams or grainy electron micrographs. Here, for example, is our friend the bacteriophage.
You’d like to zoom in for a close-up and see what’s really going on down there, but the physics of looking at tiny things says no. Move along folks. Nothing to see here.
That’s changing now, because we’ve made such strides in molecular biology. Compare the pictures above with this movie. We now know the molecular structure of this phage down to the last atom.
There’s so much good stuff for biology students to look at these days, it makes me weep. Maybe you’ve seen The Inner Life of the Cell video that was funded by Harvard. More recently they made a beautiful mitochondria video. And since we’re into flu season, take a look at this NPR piece: How A Virus Invades Your Body. While you’re at it, how about this super zoom close-up of H1N1.
Finally, if you like this kind of thing, or if you know someone who does, then I highly recommend a copy of David Goodsell’s The Machinery of Life (second edition).