Thursday, September 04, 2008

Periodic Table of Life - 68 "Elements"

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent correspondence out of Nature - Cell Biology describes a sort of "periodic table of biology" revolving around 68 basic molecules which Dr. Jamey Marth refers to as the "molecular building blocks of life". While the illustration doesn't look like a periodic table, the figure provided in the correspondence (and here in this post, down below) does list all 68 molecules. These molecules revolve around 4 basic areas of cellular composition: 1)DNA & RNA; 2)Glycans; 3)Proteins; and 4)Lipids. The nucleotides and amino acids account for 28 of the 68 molecules, and most everyone how has taken a biology class will know of them. The glycans and lipids, though less well known, are just as important.

Dr. Marth argues the following:
As indivisible units of life, the cells of all organisms consist of four fundamental macromolecular components: nucleic acids (including DNA and RNA), proteins, lipids and glycans. From the construction, modification and interaction of these components, the cell develops and functions. The struggle to comprehend this interplay is the preoccupation of biologists, and more recently those engaged in systems biology. But do we readily take into account all of the components of biological systems to model health and disease accurately? To do this, the basic composition of all cells must be evident.

The physical sciences developed the periodic table of the elements to convey the composition and relatedness of matter. A related construct for biology may provide a more balanced view of the cell and its biochemistry.
And closes with the following:
Defining the molecular building blocks of life provides a conceptual framework for biology that has the potential to enhance education and research by promoting the integration of knowledge. The insights afforded by bridging the divides that exist between disciplines can further moderate the view that researchers must invariably sacrifice breadth of knowledge to acquire depth of understanding. Cultivating this integration would reflect a more holistic and rigorous endeavour, which will ultimately be required if we are to perceive and most effectively manipulate the biological mechanisms of health and disease.

It's an interesting concept. I'm not sure that the figure presented lends itself to easy memorization, a better understanding of the interactions of the molecules, or if it is as useful as the periodic table. Do we need to have better interdisciplinary collaborations? Most certainly. You see a fair amount of overlap (in some cases, not all) between the gene jockeys and protein chemists, but I think glycan and lipid research has lagged far behind (at least in the areas of microbiology to which I have been exposed). So, while an interesting concept, I'm not sure what traction this correspondence will obtain. Time will tell I suppose.

Jamey D. Marth (2008). A unified vision of the building blocks of life Nature Cell Biology, 10 (9), 1015-1015 DOI: 10.1038/ncb0908-1015


Unknown said...


I hope readers are able to make the careful distinction between a molecule and a class of molecules. The UCSD news center has given this finding the headline "Do 68 Molecules Hold the Key to Understanding Disease?" In fact, the lipids are classes of molecules, and there are thousands of lipids implied by the classes listed on Marth's figure. Let's be really careful not to imply there are really only 68 molecules that matter.

Tom said...

You're right, and you bring up a very good point David. Thanks for making it, and I agree wholeheartedly.

For the life of me, I had no idea this blog entry would have been cited across the internets as often it has. It's an excellent reminder, to me specifically, that what I say needs to be as accurate as possible.

Anonymous said...

The concept seems based on the observations by the author that diseases cannot always be detected by genes and proteins. Interesting that this has recently received even further attention in the press, including a front page of the April 16 New York Times article, covering an issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. The 68 basic building blocks of the four fundamental macromolecular components of all cells reveals just how little is know of cellular function, and thus disease origin. Being able to interrogate and modify these components could be at the hear of the many diseases that seem so mysterious and undefinable by conventional research.

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