TV Review: Secret Universe – The Hidden Life of the Cell

There is a battle playing out inside your body right now. It started billions of years ago and it is still being fought in every one of us every minute of every day. It is the story of a viral infection – the battle for the cell.
This film reveals the exquisite machinery of the human cell system from within the inner world of the cell itself – from the frenetic membrane surface that acts as a security system for everything passing in and out of the cell, the dynamic highways that transport cargo across the cell and the remarkable turbines that power the whole cellular world to the amazing nucleus housing DNA and the construction of thousands of different proteins all with unique tasks. The virus intends to commandeer this system to one selfish end: to make more viruses. And they will stop at nothing to achieve their goal.
Exploring the very latest ideas about the evolution of life on earth and the bio-chemical processes at the heart of every one of us, and revealing a world smaller than it is possible to comprehend, in a story large enough to fill the biggest imaginations.” – BBC

This absolutely fascinating BBC documentary is narrated by David Tennant and features eminent talking heads such as Professor Steve Jones of University College London. The real star is some great CGI which does an excellent job of conveying the incredible complexity of the cell’s inner structure. The narration is pitch-perfect, conveying complex concepts with elegance and without condescension, and the device of a viral invasion adds a weird sense of drama to the proceedings.

One of the scientific questions which I have never managed to get my head around is how genes know they are in a liver cell and not a brain cell, or rather how they know to turn a stem cell into one type versus another; how the microscopic intra-cellular “machines”  know how to carry out their functions; how the information in DNA is “read” and acted upon (a question I also struggled to answer when digesting the recent stories about how the 98% of our DNA that used to be regarded as “junk” actually regulate the 2% that code for proteins). The narration and animation of this documentary didn’t completely answer this question for me but it did, I believe, bring me a little closer to comprehension – we are talking about entities that exist on such a tiny scale that chemical reaction and mechanical behaviour are indistinguishable; the fundamental properties of a given complex molecule render its observable behaviour in some way unavoidable. Please forgive my undoubted oversimplification, I’m on a journey here! The visual rendering of the motor proteins was a minor eureka moment for me.

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One thought on “TV Review: Secret Universe – The Hidden Life of the Cell

  1. Pingback: BBC humanities graduates dumbing down science? | BlatherLog

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