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The Problem With Metaphors

Sometimes they sound so cool it takes a while to realize you’ve got no idea what it actually means:

Just as a bookcase can fit more paperbacks than hardbound books, ARMAN’s fit more scaled-down genes into the same space

From an article describing a new tiny microbe (a member of the archaea) found in abandoned acid mines. The name comes from “archaea Richmond Mine acidophilic nanoorganisms”. And I have no idea what the actual meaning is behind that metaphor.

The cells really are tiny ~1/50th the width and ~1/2500 ~1/125,000 the size of a human cell.* To put that in context, if you’ve ever seen one of those to-scale comparisons of Earth and Jupiter,  this is a substantially bigger difference.** Of course we already knew microbes had smaller cells than human cells, so the real claim to fame of this article is that these microbes are “1/3 smaller than E. coli” E. coli being a pretty average bacteria.

Now I’m sure there are actually many fascinating things about ARMAN, and fortunately I have other options to learn about those things other than the popular press. I can read the PNAS paper itself because I’m fortunate enough to be employed by an institution that pays for me to get access to the paper, and I’ve spent the last six years of my life learning the art of extracting meaning from scientific papers.

I could also just e-mail the guy in my program who works on the same acid mineshaft were these microbes were identified.

But until then… I have no idea what the difference between a softcover gene and a hardcover one is.

If your curiosity has been sparked, check out the actual paper, which looks to be an interesting read.

*Assuming both cells are spheres for ease of calculation.

**Thanks to Jeff for catching that I mixed up circles and spheres, making my original estimate of the differences in cell volume a DRASTIC underestimate. Maybe I need to institute a peer review approval policy for this site? 😉

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