By Mina Le
Image: Wikimedia

Image: Wikimedia

This month saw the annotated reissue of James Watson’s The Double Helix (1968), the classic account of how he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. Twoscore and four years later, that twisting shape has lodged in our imaginations and even made its way into architecture. Drexel University, in its Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, features a double-helix staircase, and the University of Illinois at Chicago has made the same homage in its Molecular Biology Research Building — this time in the form of a DNA molecule undergoing replication.

 It makes me wonder: why stop at DNA-flavored stairs? At the cellular level, every organism appears rife with awe-inspiring engineering and design. What else could we construct in the mold of our tiniest building blocks?

Ion channel doors. Cells in the body regulate their internal chemical concentrations by selectively allowing ions in and out through channels, some of which only open when the voltage gradient changes, others of which respond when a ligand comes aboard. A front door might be designed to remain locked except when sunlight is striking its sensor: cheaper than hiring a night watchman.

Axonal propagation walkways. Neurons talk by propagating action potentials down fingerlike axons that reach for other cells; breaks in the myelin allow the signal to be refreshed along the way. Airports already echo this design in their moving walkways, where a female British voice marks each node of Ranvier.

Phosphorylation cascades. Transcription of genes is often triggered by a sort of relay run, in which a protein at the cell surface attaches a phosphate group to another protein, which in turn attaches a phosphate to a third protein, which does the same to the protein that binds the gene promoter. Fountains could enact this concept if instead of dropping water they dropped a chemical reagent that caused the next lower layer of the fountain to change color.

Utricle lecture halls. Balance is a function of the inner ear:  when our head position changes, our otoliths shift, activating compensatory reflexes. Undergraduate lecture halls might be thus designed, that when a critical mass of sleepy heads inclines toward the front of the room, the room could angle itself a notch backward and jerk them all upright again.