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Biophysicist Ken Dill: Protein Machines Are “Real Machines. That’s Not a Metaphor”

Ken Dill is a biophysicist who is a member of both the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and director of the Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology at Stony Brook University. He is a top authority on protein machines. In an understated but still fantastic TEDx talk, he discusses these machines in your body, which he emphasizes are real machines.

You should watch this, and share it. Despite the title, “The protein folding problem: a major conundrum of science,” the talk doesn’t really do much to address the problem of protein folding. There may be a bit of false advertising there. But never mind. The talk is extremely valuable. He says among other things:

  • “[T]he case I want to make for you is that proteins are machines. You have 20 thousand odd different types of machines in your body. And then other kinds of living organisms have other kinds of protein machines. There’s tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of different machines. And the first case I want to make for you is that these are real machines. That’s not a metaphor. They use energy. They spin around. They pump. They act to cause force in motion.” (6:58-7:27)

He gives illustrations including some pretty effective animations that will remind you of videos we’ve offered here in the past. He goes on:

  • “I’ve just shown you a few examples of tens of thousands of protein machines. But the case I want to make for you is just to convince you that they are real machines, just at the super-microscopic level.” (10:42-10:54)
  • “There’s a lot of technological promise here that we could be using for our big-world machines.” (12:12:12:17)
  • “But the other thing that I want to make a case for you about is the prospect of us scaling up small world machines like proteins to the big world.” (13:48-14:00)
  • “There’s a half a trillion big world machines out there in the world right now. You have more machines in the tip of your little finger than there are total big world machines out there.” (14:35-14:50)
  • Finally he says when discussing modeling human “big world” technology based upon biological protein machines: “The great thing about this field is that it’s one of the rare cases in history where you can already see how a technology works in great detail before you even develop it. We see it work in the small scale. It’s just a matter of can we scale it up.” (15:57-16:13)

For clarity and candor, these remarks rival Bruce Alberts’s famous 1998 observation in Cell.

[T]he entire cell can be viewed as a factory that contains an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of large protein machines.… Why do we call the large protein assemblies that underlie cell function protein machines? Precisely because, like machines invented by humans to deal efficiently with the macroscopic world, these protein assemblies contain highly coordinated moving parts.

(Bruce Alberts, “The Cell as a Collection of Protein Machines: Preparing the Next Generation of Molecular Biologists,” Cell, 92 (February 6, 1998): 291–294)

Alberts at the time was president of the National Academy of Sciences. These are major figures in biology. From what they say, the implication of design, while no doubt unintended, is so powerful it almost doesn’t need to be spelled out.