Local translational control

I neuroscientist friend explained to me yesterday that in recent years scientists have come to understand the principle of “Local translational control” — namely that all the proteins and other substances needed for proper functioning at the cellular level are generated locally, wherever they are needed. Cells are highly versatile factories, capable of switching from one specialized manufacturing mode to an entirely different one, depending on circumstance. All the recipes needed are right there in the 3,000,000,000 base pairs of every copy of DNA, ready to be triggered. He told me that many people find this concept difficult to understand.

Yet it occurred to me that this is exactly how things work in our daily lives, something we take for granted. The human brain is a powerhouse of protean capability, yet most of the time almost all of those capabilities remain dormant. It is only when triggered by our environment that our vast array of capabilities come into play. When we encounter a pencil sharpener, our brain can guide us to sharpen pencils. When we encounter another person, we become a conversationist. When we pick up a hammer or a screwdriver, we become a carpenter.

It is this tremendous redundancy — the localization of vast potential power into the brains and bodies of every one of millions of individuals, that allows society to function in a way that we take for granted. The “ordinary” is built from an enormous wealth of distributed potential capability.

That same principle of enormous wealth of redundant capability, available everywhere and drawn upon whenever and wherever needed, is exactly what is going on in our bodies at the cellular level.

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