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What does a cell know and how does it know it (Just a thought on Dennis Bray’s Wetware, Yale University Press) Alfonso Martinez Arias (Dpt Genetics, University of Cambridge, Cambridge UK. ama11@hermes.cam.ac.uk)

Posted by , on 10 May 2012

It is a time of gene counting, mapping, function guessing in a narrow way: a gene for this or a gene for that. If one reads the indexes of journals one might believe that by adding genes one gets an organism. It is for this reason that reading a book like “Wetware” by Dennis Bray is a stimulating exercise and a gift to the mind. Dennis Bray is a pioneer of what some of us call Systems Biology, not the one related to genomics and proteomics but ‘the other one’, the one that aims to understand Biology from the perspective of organized assemblies of molecules that perform specific tasks. For a long time he has been interested in the idea that proteins perform computations and this notion lies at the heart of his view of life. In Wetware, distilling thoughts gathered over a career probing the engineering of cells, Dennis Bray presents a personal view of a cell as a biomolecular device that senses its environment, whether a specific milieu or other cells, and through a computation of sorts, responds by changing itself and the environment. Sure, one can read his primary papers on many of the topics developed here but there is beauty and insight in the way the argument is put together in the book, its accessibility and the inspired way in which notions of what is life flow- from the reactions of Stentor to human intervention to the information processing capacities of biochemical networks.

The book can be construed as a popular work but this will betray what I perceive as an ambition to open ways of thinking which, if taken seriously, should lead many cell and developmental biologists to pose questions about calculations and dynamics rather than about genes and their function as revealed by more or less complex genetic experiments.

Dennis Bray has written before an excellent book on cell movement (Cell movement: from molecules to motility) where he explores in detail some of the issue raised in Wetware and which has guided many of us on our trips into the structure and function of the cytoskeleton. But Wetware has a lot more because here he develops a panoramic view of Life from the inside of the cell. The pervasive metaphor of the computer will irritate some computational buffs but this will only reveal that they miss the point: a cell is not a piece of hardware in the human sense and the book makes this clear that any analogy one might draw will have to bear in mind the peculiar characteristics of the molecular make up of a cell. One example: the notion that Diffusion of molecules within a cell might be a correlate of the cables that bring together the pieces of a machine, is a far reaching notion that deserves to be explored, as is the implicit notion that a signature of life is the molecular make up of sensory experiences.

I shall not go on about the book because the main object of this posting is to encourage you to read it. I believe that it should be required reading for graduate students in cell and developmental biology. Towards the end there is a quotation from Andre Gide which is an enticement to act: “one doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time”. Wetware is a gust of wind that should encourage you to sail into the current of the unknown, without fear, with the imagination that is denied by the current interest in publications rather than Discovery.




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