"Second Week of Classes" Samantha Frost

Saturday, September 11, 2010

[Kritik is pleased to publish the second in a series of posts by Samantha Frost, associate professor in Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies. As the recipient of a Mellon New Directions Fellowship, Sam is enrolled in undergraduate courses in biology and neuroscience with the aim of enhancing her research on materialist accounts of perception, judgment, and subjectivity. Last spring and over the summer, she took the pre-requisite courses in organic chemistry, basic physiology, and molecular biology. This semester, she is taking a further 12 credits of courses in biochemistry, cell biology, and neuroscience.]


Written by Samantha Frost (Political Science, GWS)

This week, I am at a conference, the annual American Political Science Association meeting. I am missing my classes (anxiously), keeping up with my readings, trying to remember the various online quizzes and homework assignments that I must do. And of course, I am hanging out with my political theory colleagues from everywhere. And a number of these colleagues, in their astonishment if not disbelief that I am studying cellular biology, jokingly inquire if I aspire to be able to explain to them what life is. The. Big. Question. I know that they are joking, but even so, it makes me want to share my reflections upon mitochondria.

In the cells of animal and plant life, there are different subunits called organelles that perform functions related to the cell’s persistence and self-reproduction. There is a nucleus, which houses and produces all the genetic information of the cell—and of the organism of which it is a part. There are little factories that produce proteins and other chemicals that are useful and necessary. There are millions of pieces of protein scaffolding that give shape and flexibility to the cell and that also serve as tracks for the transport of the cell’s nutrients, products, and waste. And there are mitochondria, small subunits that produce the energy that the cell needs to do everything that it does.

What is interesting is that all the organelles except the mitochondria are produced according to the genetic information in the cell’s nucleus. By contrast, mitochondria have their own DNA.

The speculated reason for their having their own DNA, rather than being dependent upon the cell’s nucleoid DNA, is that way back when life first formed, there was a constitutive parasitic relation between the formation of a cell and a form of bacteria.

I will likely run roughshod over the beautiful details, but the story runs something like this. And, let me say, it is a story in which are centered the kinds of hydrophobic interactions I mentioned in my last post, i.e. in which molecules which are insoluble in water end up being bound together because of the entropic movement of water.

So, in the chemically rich primordial soup, a bunch of insoluble molecules bind together in such a way as to create a membrane—a membrane whose edges meet themselves so perfectly as to create a sphere and to constitute an inside separated from the outside. Because of the force of entropy, this ends up being a pretty stable formation. Voila: a simple cell. Over time, the concentration of chemicals on the inside and on the outside of the cell membrane differ, a difference that creates a chemical gradient. This chemical gradient provides the occasion for the movement or diffusion of different chemicals in and out of the cell.

The theory is that when the membrane enclosed, it enclosed around a form of bacteria which happened to be able to produce energy, i.e. break apart molecules to release the energy of the electrical bond that holds the molecules together. That electrical energy made the diffusion of chemicals in and out of the cell easier and more efficient, which of course made it easier for the bacteria to survive.

Eventually (think: long evolutionary history), the bacteria loses many of its bacterial features, its development emphasizing instead the ever more efficient production of energy: it becomes a mitochondria. And eventually (long evolutionary history), the chemicals inside the cell, interacting with the energy provided by the mitochondria, form into differentiated proteins and subcellular units that ever more efficiently sustain and reproduce the cell… that nourishes and sustains the mitochondria whose energy enables the cell to persist and reproduce itself.

There are number of things I find striking in this. One thing is that, if one conceptually inhabits the relation between the mitochondria and the cell—I mean, really inhabits it—it is as if one could say that all these fabulous forms of life we see about us are the amazing habitats encouraged, provoked, or grown by these incredibly highly evolved bacteria-mitochondria. Life as we know it could be the condition and beautifully refined product of a bacteria that luckily found itself within an environment set off from the soup. This is a bizarre kind of displacement or decentering—not of the human, because it is bigger than that, but of what we imagine to be the units or driving force of life.

A second thing, related, is that the special nature of the mitochondria is that it complicates our sense of the singularity of the cell. That is, what occasions the cellular life that we currently recognize as plant or animal life is this accidental but effective parasitic relationship between a cell and a mitochondria: neither could survive or develop without the other. The mitochondria is not of the cell—hence its distinctive DNA—and yet it could not be without the cell. Just as the cells could not survive, develop, and evolve without the mitochondria.

So, there is a constitutive heterogeneity in the very possibility life. A cell is neither one nor two: because of the mutual interdependence and development of the mitochondria and the cell, unitary terms (i.e., one cell, two cells, three cells) are not adequate to the task of thinking about cellular life.

It reminds me of those debates about the anomaly of the pregnant body: is it one? is it two? and how that anomalous status complicates the legal concepts we use to negotiate (or undermine) women’s rights. How might we re-imagine that debate if that heterogeneity is the basic form of life.

It also makes me wonder what might happen if such a model of heterogeneity were incorporated into efforts of theorists to imagine or figure the vitality or virtual liveliness of material, informational, and cultural systems or phenomena (for instance, Jane Bennett's fabulous new book, Vibrant Matter or Brian Massumi's book Parables of the Virtual). It may not be enough for a system to be distinct from its environment (albeit in porous interrelationship with it). Would one need to incorporate this parasitic moment?

I want to say, in response to the last thought, that in our current situation, perhaps the human is akin to the mitochondria. Which makes me think that, as I reread Bennett and Massumi, I also need to revisit Michel Serres’s book Parasite in which the parasitic relation is conceived as, in some sense, the fundamental form of relation.


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prescott said...

Interesting but it must be weird to be in undergrad classes after so long.

Derrida said...

Debates about human nature are not reducible to or derived from singular cells. So how we define the human should not be indebeted to bits of biological information, however interesting that may be. We are essentially normative beings.