Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

The Machinery of Life

by PhilipJ on 2 November 2009

The recent redesign here at Biocurious resulted in a return to our roots, so to speak, with Escherichia coli once again adorning the banner at the top of every page. This image is from David Goodsell‘s newly released second edition of The Machinery of Life, a book for the biocurious if there ever was one.

The Machinery of Life is a short (167 pages) and accessible introduction to life at the molecular scale. A more readable approach than found in a textbook, we are led through the various kinds of molecules you will find in biological systems (nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, and sugars), how these molecules are created, how energy is harnessed to power living things, and how living things protect themselves at the molecular scale. Along with clear explanations, images of molecules for which David Goodsell has become famous are used to illuminate concepts from the text. A favourite of mine is reproduced below (Fig. 2.2), which shows how enolase, an enzyme composed of two subunits which is involved in glycolysis, is held together by hydrogen bonds (the blue-red lines).

molecular complementarity

After introducing the molecules and their roles, we get a tour of cellular interiors, starting with the simple and relatively unstructured bacteria, specifically E. coli, the workhorse of molecular biology. E. coli shows us how crowded cellular interiors really are, and how such biological processes as protein synthesis, nucleic acid repair, and cellular locomotion via flagella occur. A particularly beautiful example of the crowded bacterial cellular milieu can be seen in Fig. 4.3, where the density of water and other small molecules (shown in green, pink, red, and yellow) surrounding proteins and nucleic acids (in blue and purple, respectively) is shown with particular clarity.

water and small molecules

The book then turns to the study of human cells and the way our cells interact to form components of our bodies. This is largely an introduction to the different compartments found within eukaryotic cells (in contrast with the unstructured bacterial cellular interiors), and the cooperation, or at very least interaction, between cells that gives rise to muscles, the role of blood in the body, clotting (perhaps the 3rd edition will reference Andre’s PhD work), and the nervous system. The image detailing a nerve synapse (Fig. 6.10) is truly remarkable for those of us not used to the complexity of living things.

nerve synapse

The latter third of the book then features various aspects of personal health, such as cancer, aging, viral infections, antibiotics, etc. This section is particularly apt to read now, given the current worldwide panic over H1N1 influenza. My own PhD molecule of interest, rhodopsin, also makes an appearance. It is at the end of the book where you can also find the relevant data for PDB entries which were used to generate all the figures containing molecular structures, as well as a list of additional references to continue the study of life at the molecular scale.

We’ve long been fans of David’s work here at Biocurious, and I was not let down with The Machinery of Life. In addition to the clear presentation of ideas, the physical quality of paper and binding are excellent, exactly as I was hoping for a book filled with such wonderful imagery. The price for such a book was also a welcome surprise (maybe I’m too used to academic prices!), at about $25 in Canada.

If you do pick up the book, click here for a small list of errata, or you can browse through reduced-size versions of all the figures, sans figure captions. For those you’ll need to buy the book, which is in my opinion well worth it.



  1. sam    1816 days ago    #

    Looks great!


  2. Kris Verburgh    1599 days ago    #

    Beautiful! I’m going to buy the book!

    Kris Verburgh


  3. PLOM    1424 days ago    #

    I was transfixed by the beauty of the illustrations – I use it in teaching Biomedical Engineers about fundamentals of biological systems.


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