Biology: it is all about birth, life, growth, rules, regulation and change. Yep, we are talking about the circle of life, but not in a Lion King kind of way. Think smaller—much, much smaller. Every cell in your body can trace its ancestry back to a one cell zygote, formed when a single sperm fertilized an egg. The specialized, organized cells of your body are the product of millions of cycles of cell growth and division. We call the process by which a cell grows, divides and returns to its normal working state the cell cycle.
We think of the cell cycle in terms of four stages:
The orchestrated movements of chromosomes during mitosis are described as phases: prophase, prometaphase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase. In prophase, the nuclear envelope begins to break down, the nuclear material (or chromatin) condenses into rod-shaped chromosomes consisting of two sister chromatids, and the mitotic spindle begins to assemble. In prometaphase, the chromosomes begin to attach to the mitotic spindle and start to align along the center of the cell. Metaphase describes when all the chromosomes are aligned in a straight line down the center of the cell, with each sister chromatid attached to the mitotic spindle emanating from one of the cell's poles. In anaphase, the sister chromatids are pulled apart towards opposite poles. Finally in telophase, the separated chromatids decondense to their interphase-like structures and the nuclear envelope reforms. Cytokinesis physically divides the cell in half, resulting in the formation of two identical cells.
The movement of cells through the cell cycle is well regulated. Basically, a cell's progression from one phase to the other is carefully governed – in fact, you can think of it as each cell having its own set of traffic lights, telling it when to stop and when to go. This red light / green light type of system makes sure that cells don't do anything before they are supposed to, such as trying to separate their chromatids before they have finished replicating them. The system also tightly coordinates cell growth with cell division. This is a good thing too, because misregulation of the cell cycle or unchecked cellular growth and division can be catastrophic, leading to conditions like cell death or cancer.
Basically, a cell's life is a product of preparation, rules and regulation, and sometimes even sex, which is made possible by a special type of cell division called meiosis, where cells are created with half the complete set of chromosomes. Yeah, we know this particular circle of life is small and easy for us to ignore on a daily basis (mostly because there are way fewer singing animals), but the microscopic pathways inside of us are the secret of life. Occasionally things do go wrong, but on the whole our cells manage all the hard stuff without us ever having to give it a second thought. While it may be true that we've all got bigger things to deal with, don't forget to take a second, or at least a week when you are studying the cell cycle for your biology exam, to pay the cells in our bodies some respect for all that hard work they do whilst we are not paying attention. After all, it is because of them that we can take a hakuna matata, problem-free, philosophy to life.
Root Word Dictionary
This dictionary has a stellar search function. If you're curious about the roots of science-y words, check it out.
National Institutes of Health Primer on Stem Cells
Learn everything you ever wanted to know about stem cells from one of our favorite sources, the National Institutes of Health.
Scientific American talks how an all-lady lizard species reproduces without any fellas.
University of Utah's Genetic Science Learning Center
More information about stem cells. This site has all sorts of fun facts and video presentations.
Stem Cell Ethics
Lots of NIH resources discussing the ethical quandaries relating to stem cell research.
Cancer information from the National Cancer Institute.
Cells Alive Interactive Cell Cycle
Cells Alive offers interactive models of the cell cycle, mitosis, and meiosis. Please excuse the Comic Sans. It's still a worthwhile resource.
Control of the Cell Cycle Game
It's a game about the cell cycle! Who wouldn't want to waste an afternoon on the Nobel Prize website?
Edward and Bella study mitosis in biology class.
Evolution of Homer
Homer evolves from a single celled organism to a couch potato. Not exactly the way cell division and evolution work, but it's The Simpsons, and we couldn't resist.
Meiosis Square Dance
So cheesy but so good.
Synchronized Swim Team Does Mitosis
Yes, this is what scientists do in their spare time. We would like to know where we can get in on this whole synchronized science thing.
Yeast Does DNA Tricks to Live in Us
A podcast about how tough Candida albicans has to be to live in the human gut.
No Sex Please, We're Cloners
A podcast about how animals that reproduce by cloning develop genetic diversity.