The Hardware of the Cell

This blog post is a bit of a 2 for 1 sale on learning. You’ll learn about the hardware parts that make up your computer (you can go into any Apple store and intimidate the employees), and you’ll also learn about the various organelles that make up eukaryotic cells. So whether you’re learning about what CPU means, or what cilia are you’ll be entertained.

When you walk into Best Buy, the Windows store, etc. you are first struck by the visual similarities and difference between one computer and another. Some are gray and shiny, others black and matte, most have an emblem of some sort whether that be fruit, a cartoon alien, or simply the brand name. Computers also vary significantly by size. The largest computer ever built is the Sunway TaihuLight which has the average computing power of 93 petaflops (yeah, that’s a measurement), check out this video below to have your mind blown. The smallest computer is the Michigan Micro Mote, at one millimeter cubed it’s the smallest autonomous computer in the world.

Similarly, the outsides of eukaryotic cells come in many shapes, colors, sizes, and textures. Some have flagellum or cilia (bacterial cells), others have a rigid structure (plants cells), and others are amorphous (animal). Members of the Ostreococcus genus rank as the smallest eukaryote. They have an average size of 0.8 µm, a genome 13 Mb long, and contain only four organelles: a nucleus, a single chloroplast, a single mitochondrion, and a single Golgi body. (Fun fact, their genome is still 13 Mb which four times the size of smallest recorded genome of 2.9 Mb). The largest eukaryotic cell (sorry slime molds, I’m disqualifying you) are neuron cells found in particularly large animals. A  published in Progress in Neurobiology found some neuron cells in the blue whale to be 10 cm long!

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Laptops have varying degrees of protection and rigidity. The kind used by the military (you know, the ones Samuel L. Jackson is usually holding in movies) are water and shock absorbent and are extremely rigid. On the other hand, companies are actively working on creating computers with flexible displays. Cells are also highly variant in these qualities with plant cells being very rigid and highly structured, and animal cells being shapeless and fluid. This difference is due to the cell wall/membrane. In plant cells, the cell wall is made of sugars (cellulose and chitin) and can range in thickness from 0.1 to 10 µm. Animal cells have a cell membrane made of fats (phospholipids) which make the cell have more of a flexible form.

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Both types of cells have what is called a cytoplasm. The cytoplasm is mostly made of water and nutrients and fills the cell in and gives it its shape (picture the water in a water balloon). It helps the organelles stay in place and allows proteins, chemicals, etc. to move around the cell. Much like the cytoplasm, every good computer needs a cooling system to circulate through the entire computer to ensure all of the parts do not overheat and fail. There are two main cooling systems for computers, either air (usually made by installing fans, this is the noise you hear when your computer is working hard), or the riskier option for hardcore gamers: water.

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The cytoskeleton is usually referred to as the skeletal structure of the cell, it’s all of the proteins that maintain the cell structure and organelle organization. The motherboard doesn’t actually do anything, it relies on the processor to give the machine power, relies on the RAM to store memory, but it is the circuit board of the computer that ensures all of the electrical signals from the various parts of the computer go in the most efficient and correct direction.

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The endoplasmic reticulum is the highway of the cell, a network of membranes that is connected to the nucleus, to the golgi apparatus, etc. It comes in two flavors, smooth and rough.The smooth ER contains various enzymes to aid in creating lipids, detoxifying noxious chemicals to make the soluble in water, and stores ions the cell may need later for energy. The rough ER is covered in ribosomes (hence its name) and is essential to the synthesis and packaging of proteins. The ribosomes are the organelles specifically responsible for creating polypeptides out of amino acids. When the ribosomes are finished synthesizing the leave the ER and move to the golgi apparatus. A major component of computers is wiring. Wires that connect the motherboard, the case, the power source, the fan, etc. all together, there really is a ton of wires… Much like the ER which is responsible for shuttling genetic information through the central dogma process, the wires in a computer are essential in sending data and electrons throughout the machine making all of the independent pieces work together.

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The golgi apparatus takes the proteins and lipids made by the ribosomes in and determines and directs where the proteins should be sent. The golgi puts the components in a vesicle that will be able to get around the cell or through the cell wall without being damaged or degraded. This is very similar to what a hard drive does. The hard drive is where data is stored and retrieved in a computer, data is placed on the hard drive via electrical currents on a bit as a 1 or a 0, and the these 1’s and 0’s are read, converted back into electrical currents and the data is retrieved. The number of bits used is dependent on how complicated the data is. For example, an average photo is made of millions of bits. Hard drives keep getting smaller and smaller as more bits can be placed on smaller surfaces. See here for some helpful visualizations. The golgi and the hard drive both act as temporary storage and go-betweens in shuttling data (in the case of the cell, genetic data) around the cell/computer.

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Lysosomes attach to old organelles such as mitochondria, or to foreign particles, and break them down so it is easily digested by the cell. The cache acts as temporary storage, the data stored on the cache is usually old or duplicated data which is kept in order to faster serve future requests by the user, however, when the computer is turned off this data is completely erased.

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The nucleus is the most familiar organelle, it’s usually referred to as the brain of cell. It is where all of the genetic material is kept. When an environmental factor outside of the cell is sensed (most likely a change in chemistry) by the nucleus and the nucleus directs the organelles to respond to the stimulus appropriately. DNA is relaxed from it’s normal compressed form and various proteins flow into the nucleus to transcribe the code and take it for translation into proteins. The nucleus decides when the cell divides, when and what proteins are made, and even when the cell should self-destruct. The nucleus is a lot like the processor of a computer. The processor receives input data (the click of a mouse of instance), processes this data, and provides output data (opens an application). Without the processor, the computer could not be able to respond to stimulus which would make it useless, much like a cell without a nucleus.

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The phase “Mitochondria are the power house of cell” is so common and lame that it makes my skin crawl, but it is true. The mitochondria supplies the cell with energy in the form of ATP by breaking down nutrients and utilizing the electrons. ATP is then released into the cytoplasm so the other organelles can perform essential functions. The process is much more complicated than that, so I will bore you with it another time. This is a lot like how the computer uses the PSU (power supply unit). The PSU converts the alternating current power supply you get from sockets into the low-voltage direct current power the computer needs to run, much like how the mitochondria converts nutrients into ATP.

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I have no clever conclusion, my computer and I are both very tired.

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