One of the things that makes mass production possible is the large-scale integration of nearly identical parts. Much engineering design is based on this principle, which is taken to extremes in microelectronics; a modern microprocessor will contain several hundred million transistors, every one of which needs to be manufactured to very high tolerances if the device is to work at all. One might think that similar considerations would apply to biology. After all, the key components of biological nanotechnology – the proteins that are the key components of most of the nanoscale machinery of the cell – are specified by the genetic code down to the last atom, and in many cases are folded in a unique three dimensional configuration. It turns out, though, that this is not the case; biology actually has sophisticated mechanisms whose entire purpose is to introduce extra variation into its components.
This point was forcefully made by Dennis Bray in an article in Science magazine in 2003: called Molecular Prodigality (PDF version from Bray’s own website). Protein sequences can be chopped and changed, after the DNA code has been read, by processes of RNA editing and splicing and other types of post-translational modification, and these can lead to distinct changes in the operation of machines made from these proteins. Bray cites as an example the potassium channels in squid nerve axons; one of the component proteins can be altered by RNA editing in up to 13 distinct places, changing the channel’s operating parameters. He calculates that the random combination of all these possibilities means that there are 4.5 ×1015 subtly different possible types of potassium channels. This isn’t an isolated example; Bray estimates that up to a half of human structural genes allow some such variation, with the brain and nervous system being particularly rich in molecular diversity.
It isn’t at all clear what all this variation is for, if anything. One can speculate that some of this variability has evolved to increase the adaptability of organisms to unpredictable changes in environmental conditions. This is certainly true for the case of the adaptive immune system. A human has the ability to make 1012 different types of antibody, using combinatorial mechanisms to generate a huge library of different molecules, each of which has the potential to recognise characteristic target molecules on pathogens that we’ve yet to be exposed to. This is an example of biology’s inherent complexity; human engineering, in contrast, strives for simplicity.