Life is Emerging: Review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Song of the Cell
The DNA double helix is often the image spiraling at the center of 21st century advances in biomedicine and the growing bioeconomy. And yet, DNA is molecularly inert. DNA, the code for genes, is not alive and is not strictly necessary for life. Ought life be at the center of our communication of living systems? Is not the Cell a superior symbol of life and our manipulation of living systems?
A code for life isn’t a code without the life that instantiates it. A code for life must be translated. The cell is the basic unit of that translation. The cell is the minimal viable package of life as we know it. Therefore, cell biology is at the center of biomedicine’s greatest transformations, suggests Pulitzer-winning physician-scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee in his latest book, The Song of the Cell: The Exploration of Medicine and the New Human.
The Song of the Cell begins with the discovery of cells and of germ theory, featuring characters such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, who brought the cell “into intimate contact with pathology and medicine.” This intercourse would transform biomedicine, leading to the insight that we can treat disease by thinking at the cellular level. The slightest rearrangement of sick cells might be the path toward alleviating suffering for the organism: eroding the cell walls of a bacterium while sparing our human cells; inventing a medium that coaxes sperm and egg to dance into cellular union for in vitro fertilization (IVF); designing molecular missiles that home to the receptors decorating the exterior of cancer cells; teaching adult skin cells to remember their embryonic state for regenerative medicines.
Mukherjee uses the bulk of the book to elucidate key cell types in the human body, along with their “connective relationships” that enable key organs and organ systems to function. This includes the immune system, the heart, the brain, and so on. Mukherjee’s distinctive style features compelling anecdotes and human stories that animate the scientific (and unscientific) processes that have led to our current state of understanding. In his chapter on neurons and the brain, for example, he integrates Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s meticulous black ink sketches of neurons into Mukherjee’s own personal encounter with clinical depression. In one lucid section, he interviews Dr. Helen Mayberg, a pioneering neurologist who takes seriously the descriptive power of her patients’ metaphors, as they suffer from “caves,” “holes,” “voids,” and “force fields” that render their lives gray. Dr. Mayberg aims to stimulate patients’ neuronal cells in a manner that brings back the color.
Beyond exposing the insight and inventiveness that has arisen out of cell-based thinking, it seems that Mukherjee’s bigger project is an epistemological one. The early chapters of TheSong of the Cell continually hint at the potential for redefining the basic unit of biology as the cell rather than the gene. The choice to center biomedicine around cells is, above all, a conspicuous choice not to center it around genes (the subject of Mukherjee’s previous book, The Gene), because genes dominate popular science communication.
This choice of cells over genes is most welcome. Cells are alive. Genes are not. Letters—such as the As, Cs, Gs, and Ts that represent the nucleotides of DNA, which make up our genes—must be synthesized into a word or poem or song that offers a glimpse into deeper truths. A key idea embedded in this thinking is that of emergence. Whether in ancient myth or modern art, creation tends to be an emergent process, not a linearly coded script. The cell is our current best guess for the basic unit of life’s emergence, turning a finite set of chemical building blocks—nucleic acids, proteins, sugars, fats—into a replicative, evolving system for fighting stasis and entropy. The cell’s song is one for our times, for it is the song of biology’s emergence out of chemistry and physics, into the “frenetically active process” of homeostasis.
Re-centering our view of biology has practical consequences, too, for how we think about diagnosing and treating disease, and for inventing new medicines. Centering cells presents a challenge: which type of cell to place at the center? Rather than default to the apparent simplicity of DNA as a symbol because it represents the one master code for life, the tension in defining the diversity of cells—a mapping process still far from complete in cutting-edge biology laboratories—can help to create a more thoughtful library of cellular metaphors to shape both the practice and communication of biology.
Further, effective problem solving is often about operating at the right level, or the right scale. The cell feels like appropriate level at which to interrogate many of the diseases that ail us, because the senses that guide our own perceptions of sickness and health—the smoldering pain of inflammation, the tunnel vision of a migraine, the dizziness of a fluttering heart—are emergent.
This, unfortunately, is sort of where Mukherjee leaves the reader, under-exploring the consequences of a biology of emergence. Many practical and profound questions have to do with the ways that each scale of life feeds back on the others. In a tome on Cells and “the future human” I wished that Mukherjee had created more space for seeking the ways that cells will shape and be shaped by the future, of humanity and otherwise.
We are entering a phase of real-world bioengineering that features the modularization of cellular parts within cells, of cells within organs, of organs within bodies, and of bodies within ecosystems. In this reality, we would be unwise to assume that any whole is the mere sum of its parts.
For example, when discussing the regenerative power of pluripotent stem cells, Mukherjee raises the philosophical thought experiment of the Delphic boat, also known as the Ship of Theseus. The boat is made of many pieces of wood, each of which is replaced for repairs over the years, with the boat’s structure unchanged. Eventually none of the boat’s original wood remains: Is it the same boat?
Mukherjee raises the Delphic boat in one paragraph at the end of the chapter on stem cells, as a metaphor related to the possibility of stem cell-enabled regeneration in perpetuity. He does not follow any of the threads of potential answers. Given the current state of cellular engineering, about which Mukherjee is a world expert from his work as a physician-scientist, this book could have used an entire section dedicated to probing this question and, importantly, the ways this thought experiment falls apart.
We are entering a phase of real-world bioengineering that features the modularization of cellular parts within cells, of cells within organs, of organs within bodies, and of bodies within ecosystems. In this reality, we would be unwise to assume that any whole is the mere sum of its parts. Wholeness at any one of these scales of life—organelle, cell, organ, body, ecosystem—is what is at stake if we allow biological reductionism to assume away the relation between those scales.
In other words, Mukherjee succeeds in providing a masterful and compelling narrative of the lives of many of the cells that emerge to enliven us. Like his previous books, it is a worthwhile read for anyone curious about the role of cells in disease and in health. And yet, he fails to offer the broader context of TheSong of the Cell.
As leading agronomist and essayist Wes Jackson has written, “The sequence of amino acids that is at home in the human cell, when produced inside the bacterial cell, does not fold quite right. Something about the E. coli internal environment affects the tertiary structure of the protein and makes it inactive. The whole in this case, the E. coli cell, affects the part—the newly made protein. Where is the priority of part now?” 
Beyond the ways that different kingdoms of life translate the same genetic code, the practical situation for humanity today relates to the ways that the different disciplines of modern life use values and culture to influence our genes, cells, bodies, and environment. It may be that humans will soon become a bit like the Delphic boat, infused with the buzz of fresh cells to repopulate different niches within our bodies, for healthier, longer lives. But in biology, as in writing, a mixed metaphor can cause something of a cacophony. For we are not boats with parts to be replaced piecemeal. And nor are whales, nor alpine forests, nor topsoil. Life isn’t a sum of parts, and neither is a song that rings true.
 Wes Jackson, "Visions and Assumptions," in Nature as Measure (p. 52-53).
The glass-encased cabinet looks like a display meant to hold reasonably priced watches, or drugstore beauty creams shipped from France. But instead of this stagnant merchandise, each of its five shelves is overgrown with leaves — moss-soft pea sprouts, spikes of Lolla rosa lettuces, pale bok choy, dark kale, purple basil or red-veined sorrel or green wisps of dill. The glass structure isn’t a cabinet, but rather a “micro farm.”
The gadget is on display at the Richmond, Virginia headquarters of Babylon Micro-Farms, a company that aims to make indoor farming in the U.S. more accessible and sustainable. Babylon’s soilless hydroponic growing system, which feeds plants via nutrient-enriched water, allows chefs on cruise ships, cafeterias and elsewhere to provide home-grown produce to patrons, just seconds after it’s harvested. Currently, there are over 200 functioning systems, either sold or leased to customers, and more of them are on the way.
The chef-farmers choose from among 45 types of herb and leafy-greens seeds, plop them into grow trays, and a few weeks later they pick and serve. While success is predicated on at least a small amount of these humans’ care, the systems are autonomously surveilled round-the-clock from Babylon’s base of operations. And artificial intelligence is helping to run the show.
Babylon piloted the use of specialized cameras that take pictures in different spectrums to gather some less-obvious visual data about plants’ wellbeing and alert people if something seems off.
Imagine consistently perfect greens and tomatoes and strawberries, grown hyper-locally, using less water, without chemicals or environmental contaminants. This is the hefty promise of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) — basically, indoor farms that can be hydroponic, aeroponic (plant roots are suspended and fed through misting), or aquaponic (where fish play a role in fertilizing vegetables). But whether they grow 4,160 leafy-green servings per year, like one Babylon farm, or millions of servings, like some of the large, centralized facilities starting to supply supermarkets across the U.S., they seek to minimize failure as much as possible.
Babylon’s soilless hydroponic growing system
Courtesy Babylon Micro-Farms
Here, AI is starting to play a pivotal role. CEA growers use it to help “make sense of what’s happening” to the plants in their care, says Scott Lowman, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Virginia, a state that’s investing heavily in CEA companies. And although these companies say they’re not aiming for a future with zero human employees, AI is certainly poised to take a lot of human farming intervention out of the equation — for better and worse.
Most of these companies are compiling their own data sets to identify anything that might block the success of their systems. Babylon had already integrated sensor data into its farms to measure heat and humidity, the nutrient content of water, and the amount of light plants receive. Last year, they got a National Science Foundation grant that allowed them to pilot the use of specialized cameras that take pictures in different spectrums to gather some less-obvious visual data about plants’ wellbeing and alert people if something seems off. “Will this plant be healthy tomorrow? Are there things…that the human eye can't see that the plant starts expressing?” says Amandeep Ratte, the company’s head of data science. “If our system can say, Hey, this plant is unhealthy, we can reach out to [users] preemptively about what they’re doing wrong, or is there a disease at the farm?” Ratte says. The earlier the better, to avoid crop failures.
Natural light accounts for 70 percent of Greenswell Growers’ energy use on a sunny day.
Courtesy Greenswell Growers
IALR’s Lowman says that other CEA companies are developing their AI systems to account for the different crops they grow — lettuces come in all shapes and sizes, after all, and each has different growing needs than, for example, tomatoes. The ways they run their operations differs also. Babylon is unusual in its decentralized structure. But centralized growing systems with one main location have variabilities, too. AeroFarms, which recently declared bankruptcy but will continue to run its 140,000-square foot vertical operation in Danville, Virginia, is entirely enclosed and reliant on the intense violet glow of grow lights to produce microgreens.
Different companies have different data needs. What data is essential to AeroFarms isn’t quite the same as for Greenswell Growers located in Goochland County, Virginia. Raising four kinds of lettuce in a 77,000-square-foot automated hydroponic greenhouse, the vagaries of naturally available light, which accounts for 70 percent of Greenswell’s energy use on a sunny day, affect operations. Their tech needs to account for “outside weather impacts,” says president Carl Gupton. “What adjustments do we have to make inside of the greenhouse to offset what's going on outside environmentally, to give that plant optimal conditions? When it's 85 percent humidity outside, the system needs to do X, Y and Z to get the conditions that we want inside.”
AI will help identify diseases, as well as when a plant is thirsty or overly hydrated, when it needs more or less calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen.
Nevertheless, every CEA system has the same core needs — consistent yield of high quality crops to keep up year-round supply to customers. Additionally, “Everybody’s got the same set of problems,” Gupton says. Pests may come into a facility with seeds. A disease called pythium, one of the most common in CEA, can damage plant roots. “Then you have root disease pressures that can also come internally — a change in [growing] substrate can change the way the plant performs,” Gupton says.
AI will help identify diseases, as well as when a plant is thirsty or overly hydrated, when it needs more or less calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen. So, while companies amass their own hyper-specific data sets, Lowman foresees a time within the next decade “when there will be some type of [open-source] database that has the most common types of plant stress identified” that growers will be able to tap into. Such databases will “create a community and move the science forward,” says Lowman.
In fact, IALR is working on assembling images for just such a database now. On so-called “smart tables” inside an Institute lab, a team is growing greens and subjects them to various stressors. Then, they’re administering treatments while taking images of every plant every 15 minutes, says Lowman. Some experiments generate 80,000 images; the challenge lies in analyzing and annotating the vast trove of them, marking each one to reflect outcome—for example increasing the phosphate delivery and the plant’s response to it. Eventually, they’ll be fed into AI systems to help them learn.
For all the enthusiasm surrounding this technology, it’s not without downsides. Training just one AI system can emit over 250,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to MIT Technology Review. AI could also be used “to enhance environmental benefit for CEA and optimize [its] energy consumption,” says Rozita Dara, a computer science professor at the University of Guelph in Canada, specializing in AI and data governance, “but we first need to collect data to measure [it].”
The chef-farmers can choose from 45 types of herb and leafy-greens seeds.
Courtesy Babylon Micro-Farms
Any system connected to the Internet of Things is also vulnerable to hacking; if CEA grows to the point where “there are many of these similar farms, and you're depending on feeding a population based on those, it would be quite scary,” Dara says. And there are privacy concerns, too, in systems where imaging is happening constantly. It’s partly for this reason, says Babylon’s Ratte, that the company’s in-farm cameras all “face down into the trays, so the only thing [visible] is pictures of plants.”
Tweaks to improve AI for CEA are happening all the time. Greenswell made its first harvest in 2022 and now has annual data points they can use to start making more intelligent choices about how to feed, water, and supply light to plants, says Gupton. Ratte says he’s confident Babylon’s system can already “get our customers reliable harvests. But in terms of how far we have to go, it's a different problem,” he says. For example, if AI could detect whether the farm is mostly empty—meaning the farm’s user hasn’t planted a new crop of greens—it can alert Babylon to check “what's going on with engagement with this user?” Ratte says. “Do they need more training? Did the main person responsible for the farm quit?”
Lowman says more automation is coming, offering greater ability for systems to identify problems and mitigate them on the spot. “We still have to develop datasets that are specific, so you can have a very clear control plan, [because] artificial intelligence is only as smart as what we tell it, and in plant science, there's so much variation,” he says. He believes AI’s next level will be “looking at those first early days of plant growth: when the seed germinates, how fast it germinates, what it looks like when it germinates.” Imaging all that and pairing it with AI, “can be a really powerful tool, for sure.”
Story by Big Think
For over a century, scientists have dreamed of growing human organs sans humans. This technology could put an end to the scarcity of organs for transplants. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The capability to grow fully functional organs would revolutionize research. For example, scientists could observe mysterious biological processes, such as how human cells and organs develop a disease and respond (or fail to respond) to medication without involving human subjects.
Recently, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge has laid the foundations not just for growing functional organs but functional synthetic embryos capable of developing a beating heart, gut, and brain. Their report was published in Nature.
The organoid revolution
In 1981, scientists discovered how to keep stem cells alive. This was a significant breakthrough, as stem cells have notoriously rigorous demands. Nevertheless, stem cells remained a relatively niche research area, mainly because scientists didn’t know how to convince the cells to turn into other cells.
Then, in 1987, scientists embedded isolated stem cells in a gelatinous protein mixture called Matrigel, which simulated the three-dimensional environment of animal tissue. The cells thrived, but they also did something remarkable: they created breast tissue capable of producing milk proteins. This was the first organoid — a clump of cells that behave and function like a real organ. The organoid revolution had begun, and it all started with a boob in Jello.
For the next 20 years, it was rare to find a scientist who identified as an “organoid researcher,” but there were many “stem cell researchers” who wanted to figure out how to turn stem cells into other cells. Eventually, they discovered the signals (called growth factors) that stem cells require to differentiate into other types of cells.
For a human embryo (and its organs) to develop successfully, there needs to be a “dialogue” between these three types of stem cells.
By the end of the 2000s, researchers began combining stem cells, Matrigel, and the newly characterized growth factors to create dozens of organoids, from liver organoids capable of producing the bile salts necessary for digesting fat to brain organoids with components that resemble eyes, the spinal cord, and arguably, the beginnings of sentience.
Organoids possess an intrinsic flaw: they are organ-like. They share some characteristics with real organs, making them powerful tools for research. However, no one has found a way to create an organoid with all the characteristics and functions of a real organ. But Magdalena Żernicka-Goetz, a developmental biologist, might have set the foundation for that discovery.
Żernicka-Goetz hypothesized that organoids fail to develop into fully functional organs because organs develop as a collective. Organoid research often uses embryonic stem cells, which are the cells from which the developing organism is created. However, there are two other types of stem cells in an early embryo: stem cells that become the placenta and those that become the yolk sac (where the embryo grows and gets its nutrients in early development). For a human embryo (and its organs) to develop successfully, there needs to be a “dialogue” between these three types of stem cells. In other words, Żernicka-Goetz suspected the best way to grow a functional organoid was to produce a synthetic embryoid.
As described in the aforementioned Nature paper, Żernicka-Goetz and her team mimicked the embryonic environment by mixing these three types of stem cells from mice. Amazingly, the stem cells self-organized into structures and progressed through the successive developmental stages until they had beating hearts and the foundations of the brain.
“Our mouse embryo model not only develops a brain, but also a beating heart [and] all the components that go on to make up the body,” said Żernicka-Goetz. “It’s just unbelievable that we’ve got this far. This has been the dream of our community for years and major focus of our work for a decade and finally we’ve done it.”
If the methods developed by Żernicka-Goetz’s team are successful with human stem cells, scientists someday could use them to guide the development of synthetic organs for patients awaiting transplants. It also opens the door to studying how embryos develop during pregnancy.