Every biology major is familiar with boring recounts of how DNA encoding genetic information is used to create proteins that perform a multitude of essential cell functions. The experience of internalizing molecular biology is tedious, involving elaborate chemical structures, bonding patterns and free energy constraints. However, I found that if I personified the process a bit, by giving the genetic information human emotions and thoughts, it seemed easier and more fun to understand the process.
Drama of a Cell” follows the correct biological steps that a eukaryotic cell takes to read, transfer, and eventually use (functionally) the genetic information contained in its DNA. The body of this text will involve the same “start” and “stop” coding words and sequences (AGGTTAA….) that the biological cell uses to initiate and terminate its events. The music ties along with the emotions and sights that we would feel were we microscopic enough to witness the cellular events firsthand.
Scene 1:Nucleus:Initiation, lying in wait
STARTGATACGTACAAATTTGAGTAGTAGTAGCGCGTACGAInside a human cell, a lone gene locus composed of chemical DNA information waits to be recognized by the cell's transcriptional machinery. The locus has been passed down for generations, undergoing many selective mutations and struggling to be noticed above hundreds of thousands of its brother coding sequences.
Its home is the nucleus; a cold, enveloped bubble in the cell where small nuclear pores reveal glimpses of the magnificent organization of the outer cytoplasm. Even though flurries of activity spontaneously occur all around the gene, the nucleus is sheltered from the cytoplasm's excitement. If the gene could feel, undoubtedly emotions of hope, desire, and anxiety would be drifting through its chemical bases.
Hope to realize its potential as a useful protein in the cellGATAACATATA
Desire to escape its nuclear prison and experience the enormous world of new macromolecules in the cytoplasmTCGATACATA
Anxiety that both its function could never be realized or, if successfully translated, it may encode for a cancerous, malignant proteinAAGTTACGAATTCTACTAASTOP
STARTAGGGRATCAATDAAIAGOGGHAEATTD: “talk show host”
Radiohead has always been able to touch new nerves of which we were previously unaware. The soothing yet simultaneously sinister tone of the lead vocalist Thom Yorke in “Talk Show Host” screams of alienation, discontent, desire and frustration.
I want to
I want to be someone else or I'll explode
Floating upon this surface for the birds
The cell, waiting within the nuclear envelope, is desperately awaiting its chance to be recognized by the cell’s transcriptional machinery. The intro sequence starts as a simple, descending minor chord riff on a heavily synthesized piano, eliciting a lonely, creepy setting that pairs well with the encapsulated cell nucleus. In the background, more synthesized sounds crescendo and silence, adding to the tumultuous feel of the melody and oddly coupling with Yorke’s soft voice to re-create an interesting hybrid of fear/anger/impatience. As the cymbal-heavy drumbeat drives on, intermingled by more synthetic, chemical-like sounds (similar to the DNA’s genetic information), Yorke ends by crying a final plea for action and salvationAAGGAASTOP
You want me?
Well come on and break the door down
You want me?
Fucking come on and break the door down
Transcriptional Fury and Packaging,
Freedom through Nuclear Pores
STARTAGGATATACGGActivity!! Finally, the transcriptional complex of the cell has been summoned to the gene’s location to turn its DNA into mRNA information encoding for proteins. As the RNA polymerase and other cell machinery grab onto the strand, a flurry of activity occurs. The gene, confused but excited, is snaked around itself in a stable comformation. As new bonds are created, new relationships are forged. The gene, proud of being recognized over its compatriot DNA sequences, spurs the process with energy to initiate the cell machinery complex.
The complex races along the DNA strand, creating an mRNA informational strand that snakes out of the main complex , twisting and pulling to get away. The new strand is re-born, its bases exactly complementary and opposite in genetic code to its older parent strand.
Excitement and relief are emotions involved in the cathartic release of the DNA’s frustration in its re-birth as a new strand of mRNA (messenger RNA). Eventually the process is complete, the new mRNA strand containing the genetic information shoots towards the nuclear pores, bidding farewell to its parent DNA strand (which remains eternally in the nucleus) and exiting its nuclear home to witness the enormous main inner compartment of the cell: the cytoplasm.GATACAAATSTOP
STARTAGGGSGTMASCCHIGGANGAAPUAAMPKAAICTNCS: “tonight, tonight”
The melody of “tonight, tonight” starts with a majestic, sweeping orchestral arrangement representing the relief and passionate joy of the gene after its transcriptional recognition. After the initial excitement, the melody focuses on a steady drum beat a closed high-hat with a simple guitar riff playing behind Billy Corgin’s soft voice. Corgin sets the tone of tempered enthusiasm in-between the orcheastral explosions of strings.
Time is never time at all
You can never ever leave, without leaving a piece of youth
And our lives are forever changed
We will never be the same
The more you change the less you feel
As the genetic information enters a new body (the mRNA) and leaves behind its old home, the excitement of its future potential is interrupted by feelings of sadness for leaving its original form. As the lyrics suggest, the mRNA strand can never go back to the nucleus; its “life is forever changed….”
Believe, believe in me, believe, believe!
That life can change, that you're not stuck in vain
We’re not the same, we're different.
Tonight, tonight, tonight
We’ll crucify the insincere tonight (Tonight)
We’ll make things right, we'll feel it all tonight (Tonight)
We’ll find a way to offer up the night (Tonight)
The indescribable moments of your life (Tonight)
The impossible is possible tonight (Tonight)
Believe in me as I believe in you,
Tonight, tonight, tonight,
In a burst of zeal, the gene remembers its mission, its goals, its dreams and starts to “believe” that it can accomplish something; “the impossible is possible tonight.” It has been waiting for so long, its opportunity has come, and anything seems attainable. With its mission in mind, the gene banishes its fears and regrets left with its former body. The music plays an exciting, racing, grandiose melody as the mRNA strand encoding the gene shoots towards its future in the cytoplasm AGGACTASTOP
Scene 3: Cytoplasm, searching for ribosome
STARTAGGMAAPSATTNANDCCATCCLATSTTES: “songs for ghosts to haunt to” CTTASTOP
The mRNA is hurtled through the pore at blinding speed into a highway of insanely confusing cellular activity. Small kinase proteins RACE in-between enormous ribosomes, DART through cross-linked skeletal proteins, and LOOP around other chains of mRNA searching for protein machinery.
The mRNA strand hurtles through the expansive cytoplasm filled with organelles and compartments nearly as large as its nuclear home. Energy drives everything in the cytoplasm; ATP molecular fuel is constantly burned and re-made for every action. As the mRNA strand SPINS wildly at the bustling cell parts it looks anxiously, expectantly and urgently for the ribosome that will turn its genetic information into a protein AGGCTASTOP
STARTAGTTMAPS and Atlases’ racing, frantic polytonal melodies immerse the listener immediately into the violent chaos of cytoplasm traffic. The guitar notes peal off in all different directions, coated in glisses and embellishments. The racing drum beat speaks to the urgency of the mRNA strand's efforts to find its home while the screaming choruses layered behind the music add to the frantic excitement of the environment. The entire song is an adrenaline-fueled ride of anticipation, highlighting the mRNA strand’s search for a ribosome. AGGTTSTOP
STARTAGCTTFINALLY!The mRNA strand is attacked by a ribosomal complex located atop the Endoplasmic Reticulum organelle. Its strand is completely engulfed by a large and small subunit of the protein machine. The mRNA tingles in anticipation of finally becoming a polypeptide protein chain. Methodically, the giant ribosome threads the genetic information through its three active sites, attracting amino acids to build a long protein chain as each codon of the mRNA strand is read. This final metamorphosis of the genetic information spills out of the ribosome into the inside of the ER, immediately twisting into secondary and tertiary conformations dictated by free energy states. With a final, strong, large body, the information has made it to the protein stage. This final, powerful form, made up of amino acids and polypeptide bonds, is much more formidable compared to the flimsy, weak, delicate mRNA strands.
The protein exits the main cytoplasm and enters the endoplasmic reticulum, the dark foreboding chamber where it will be modified and then shipped to the Golgi Body for further work. The peptide’s bold character is challenged.....
(Work it harder, make it better)
Both Kanye West’s self-confidence and “Stonger’s” powerful, robotic background beat gel with the mRNA strand’s emboldened courage after its resurrection as strong protein chain. The mechanical feel of the track and theme of improvement through work and egotism represent the mechanistic addition of polypeptides to the protein by the ribosome as the protein is continually built into a more stable structure. The background and chorus originally was created by Daft Punk, experts at providing an electronic, primitive voice for ambition. As the protein exits the cytoplasm and enters the ER, it is cautiously audacious given its new form and solid prospects for function.
Scene 5: ER and Golgi Body Post-Translation modification,
STARTAGTTACThe ER is where a protein’s true structure and function is recognized. The unique chemical and physical environment of the Endoplasmic Reticulum encourages the polypeptide protein to adopt a confirmation which will ultimately determine its usefulness to the cell. The protein continues to change dynamically, gaining more characteristics and identifying its true form down the assembly line of the ER. Eventually it will bud off of the ER in a transport vesicle and travelTCAGGTJTCUSTTIAACE: “genesis” to the Golgi Body, where the final modifications take place. In the Golgi Body, large ethereal membrane blobs float in the cytoplasmic fluid. Vesicle bubbles constantly shift between the cis and trans side of the strange structure, carrying the modifying protein along its final conveyor belt.
The final drama is almost complete, and the pressure builds as the vesicle buds off of the Golgi and heads towards the membrane-the place where the protein will forever be lodged and contribute to cell signaling.
“Genesis” is a dramatic, tense, serious work with loud bass drums punctuated by even louder slap bass licks. The song is perfect for setting the mood for the ultimate showdown, the preparation for the final battle, and the expectation of a resolution. As the protein enters the assembly line traveling from the ER to Golgi, the whizzes and electronic background noises of Justice spur on its momentum. The listener can imagine a giant car assembly line, with drills and robots constantly adding new armor to the protein as it twists and grows into a functional membrane protein. The beginning of the track builds suspense for the process while the ending resolution is hopeful, yet serious. It’s time for the protein to go to work.
The Final Chapter: Function
STARTAGTTAThe protein has made it. As it embeds itself in the cell membrane, part floating in the outside of the cell and part hanging in the inside of the cell, the protein witnesses a world beyond his world. It has come from the inside of the nucleus to the inside of the cytoplasm, through the ER and Golgi Apparatus and finally to the outer limit of the cell. As outside chemicals come and communicate with its tail end, it sends the external messages into the inside of the cell by recruiting lacky messangers to its other end. Pride, ambition, accomplishment and satisfaction make up the mood of the final scene of the drama.
CAGGTWGGTeeCTzeGTr: “the greatest man that ever lived”
Weezer’s triumphant ending is one of pure egotism and fun. The song starts with rounds of applause, justly deserved by the protein’s survival to membrane function. Rivers Cuomo belts out a confident tribute to his own accomplishments and aptitude for success. Intermingled in the variations on a traditional Shaker Hymn is a choral arrangement kept in time by a single militant snare drum. Towards the end of the song, Cuomo describes his initial anxiety and struggles, relating perfectly to the DNA strand’s worries about being recognized, the mRNA’s confusion in the cytoplasm and the polypeptide’s challenge with finding its functional role in the cell. Each Shaker variation exudes “conclusion;” this song just feels like one that brings a fun ending to a hard journey.
I’m the baddest of the bad
I’m the best that you’ve ever had
I’m the tops, I’m the thing
I can take on anybody
I can do my thing
I don’t wanna hurt nobody
But a bee has got to sting
I’ma fix it if you mix it up
Talk smack, and I’ma gonna shut you up
I am the greatest man that ever lived
Somebody said all the world’s a stage
And each of us is a player
That’s what I’ve been tryin’ to tell you
In Act 1 I was struggling to survive
Nobody wanted my action dead or alive
Act 2, I hit the big time
And bodies be all up on my behind
And I can’t help myself because I was born to shine
And if you don’t like it, you can shove it
But you don’t like it, you love it
So I’ll be up here in a rage
‘til they bring the curtain down on the stage