An interesting news feature on the burgeoning collaborations between biology and physics, with a catchy title: Physics in the cell: Spring theory.
In the cell there’s no eye-soothing white space to separate things. Water molecules are a constant omnidirectional hailstorm, van der Waals forces glue things together and viscosity rules. Within this molecular maelstrom, gravity is imperceptible, and there’s more or less no inertia; all purposeful movement degenerates into random jittering the moment no further power is available. [UNC cell and molecular biologist Kerry] Bloom has a dramatic illustration of the strangeness: if a bacterium stops beating its flagella to move forward, it comes to a stop in “less than the width of a hydrogen bond”, just a fraction of a nanometre.
For those who find these [and other!] complications fascinating, the tools of modern physics are making them ever more amenable to study. Theoreticians and experimentalists are devising predictive mathematical models for the mechanical properties of cells at a molecular level, and starting to expose the formulae under which these tiny chaotic environments function.
All the tools of science are being employed these days to study cells and molecules, in what has quickly become a buzzword: nanobiotechnology.