Demystifying biological self assembly

Perhaps the most mysterious and remarkable property of living systems is that they build themselves. That phrase is loaded, though, because it suggests that there is a builder. But there’s no entity to do the assembling before the assembly has itself started. What living systems do is sort of “fall together.” Unfortunately this defies our everyday logic. We never see anything like it.

Why is it we never see the very thing that makes life possible? It’s because life’s magic happens at the scale of molecules, whereas we observe things at the scale of cats and dogs. There are a lot of molecules in a cat.

This seeming impossibility of complex self-assembly is at the root of a lot of mischief. In particular, it leads many to a deep emotional conviction that there must be something to intelligent design. I’m convinced that if we could make self-assembly more comprehensible, more real, it would lead to corresponding improvements in scientific fluency.

Here is a good three dimensional representation of the kind of self-assembly that viruses do. It has some magnets that simulate the forces of molecular binding. Watch carefully as the random jiggling turns it back into a virus.

[via the MAKE site]

If you’d like to get more (virtual) hands-on experience with self-assembly, check out this interactive modeling environment: Molecular Workbench Simulation

[via Mark Guzdial’s blog]