Life is complicated. Even one tiny cell has a lot going on at any given time, even when things are running smoothly. Normal cellular functions and their emergency responses (like to injury or infection) are mostly carried out by proteins. Proteins tell other proteins what to do by carrying signals, tagging one another with chemical groups, chewing up other proteins or helping assemble new ones, and so on. They also help orchestrate which genes are turned on or off and when.
The cell itself is constantly sensing and reacting to constant environmental fluctuations, as are the individual proteins and other molecules. So how do you connect these two things?
“You can see a cell by eye, using a standard microscope. But you can’t see individual molecules that way,” explains Sanford-Burnham’s Dr. Dorit Hanein. “A cell is on the micrometer scale (one-thousandth of a millimeter), while an individual molecule is on the nanometer scale (one-millionth of a millimeter). That’s like the difference between walking the 500 miles from here [San Diego] to San Francisco, versus walking from here to the moon.”
What Dr. Hanein and other scientists need are techniques that allow them to look not just at the moon, but at the earth, the moon and everything in between.