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From Atoms to Elvis

A wide-angle look at the foundations of biology

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by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com

To understand physiology, you have to understand cells. To understand cells, you’ve got to understand DNA and self-replication. And you can’t understand DNA unless you put them in the context of chemistry and physics …

Atoms make the world

Atoms are the building blocks of nature. They are mostly empty space: a tiny clump of protons and neutrons, like a baseball floating in the centre of a stadium, plus some electrons whizzing around the stands like peanuts.

What gives it substance, then? Only the weird, extreme, and arbitrary forces of the universe hold it together. Like magic, you simply can’t wedge anything else between the electrons and the nucleus — and so they seem solid.

Add a single proton to an atom, you get a different kind of atom. If you add too many, they don’t hold together well, and the structure is radioactive, and sheds subatomic particles and energy that can disrupt other matter. There are several dozen kinds of more or less stable atoms, each one of them called an element, like iron, magnesium, or carbon.

This is atomic physics.

We’ve got chemistry

Combinations of elements — several atoms stuck together — are molecules. Atoms and molecules combine in almost infinite ways, making up everything in the universe. For all the variety of combinations, however, only one element — carbon — combines into impressively complex molecules. These super molecules are the basic ingredient of life. This is why we are a “carbon-based” life form. Silicon is the only other element that could, conceivably, combine to create molecules complex enough for life: but here on Earth, carbon is the king.

This is chemistry.

The mysterious transition

Somehow — and this is one the great mysteries of biology — organic chemistry got too big for its britches. The king of the carbon-based super molecules is deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. This molecule is special because it has the somewhat spooky ability to make copies of itself, a process as lifeless in itself as any other chemical reaction — just unusually complicated chemistry. This ability to self-replicate had some extraordinary consequences, starting with natural selection and leading to the dinosaurs, you, Elvis, and this book. How?

Naturally, DNA’s talent for cloning itself resulted in a whole bunch of DNA molecules kicking around. At the dawn of life, slight errors and differences in all that copying — caused by the interference of radioactivity — resulted in some DNA molecules that were better or worse at copying themselves. It doesn’t matter how many of these detours were impotent, as long as any of them worked better. The ones that were better at it became more numerous, and evolution was born.

In this way, over hundreds of millions of years, by slow and random accumulation of slightly more effective methods of self-replication, DNA molecules gradually developed complex chemical machinery for aiding and abetting the process of replication. And somewhere in there, during some uncelebrated stretch of eons, that chemical machinery became so elaborate that it crossed a vague gray zone and became … alive! Cells were born.

This is biology.


About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.

Related Reading

This article is part of the Biological Literacy series — fun explorations of how the human body works, what I think of as “owner’s manual stuff.” Here are ten of the most popular articles on this theme: