Scientists Illuminate Life's Workings By Calculating The Number Of Protein Molecules In A Single Cell

A galaxy of proteins exist within a single cell. TinyDevil/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 24 Jan 2018, 16:01

Have you ever wondered how many protein molecules are contained within a single cell? Well, you should – after all, life is nothing without proteins and all their forms, from antibodies and enzymes to storage components and messengers. The world without proteins is like a book without words.

Knowing how many proteins are contained within the average cell is pretty important – particularly when it comes to understanding how certain diseases emerge – but curiously, up until this point, this number has proven to be elusive. Now, after a fairly complex attempt to find the answer, a team led by the University of Toronto (UoT) has finally settled on a figure: 42 million.

Clearly, that’s a lot, and the team over at ScienceAlert has gleefully, and quite rightly, made references to the Meaning of Life, at least the one touted by Douglas Adam’s magnum opus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

As reported by their paper in Cell Systems, it’s actually surprisingly difficult to count these proteins – and not because they had to find each individual molecule by hand. Imagine losing count on something that laborious.

As explained in an accompanying press release, the best researchers have been able to do in the past is add fluorescent tags to protein molecules en masse, a little like a friendly carpet bomb of glow stick fluid. Individual proteins couldn’t be counted, but the general number could be estimated.

A variety in the ways of detecting this fluorescence, and the imprecision in which their numbers were tallied up, always gave a wide array of results, depending on the research laboratory.

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Fluorescing proteins within yeast cells. Brandon Ho

Proteins, described by the authors as the “final arbiter of most cellular functions,” are too important to be subjected to guesswork, so they decided to sort this madness out.

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