In exploring how humans harness energy to do work, Robert A. Lue – faculty director of HarvardX, professor of the practice of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and the Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning – said the answer lies within.
Very deep within.
“When we think about work, we think about our careers, weightlifting, or gardening,” Lue said. “But our cells also need to think about doing work. There’s a lot that goes on inside cells that are truly remarkable, and that has tremendous relevance for us and our own health.”
Each human being is made up of 5-10 trillion cells, Lue said, and each cell is “a small universe” with its own tremendous complexity. Each highly-organized cell operates like a well-organized factory, where each component has a very specific job.
“At the molecular level,” Lue said, “We live in a mechanical world.”
Drawing from his upcoming HarvardX course, “Cell Biology: Mitochondria,” which launches on May 25, Lue drew the audience’s attention to that specific part of the human cell, explaining how mitochondria utilizes the majority of energy in the body. “In each and every one of our cells, we have 10 or 20 mitochondria that are literally powerhouses,” Lue said.
But the most fascinating question about mitochondria may be: where did it came from?
Millions of years ago, oxygen was toxic to single cells. In addition, Lue observed, mitochondria looks remarkably like bacteria. Lue suggested that as some bacteria began to process oxygen for energy – an element that was toxic to single-cell organisms – a collaboration with profound implications occurred.
Scientists hypothesize that “one larger cell engulfed one or more of these bacteria,” Lue said. “And instead of breaking them down, they held on to them and developed a collaborative relationship with them – an endosymbiotic relationship.”
Among other things, he said, that means that each mitochondria in our cells has a separate genome from our cells.
“A lot of evidence that indicates that mitochondria are semi-independent,” Lue said. “It may be one of the greatest examples of the evolution of cooperation – not between two species such as human and dogs, but between two cells that gained mutual advantage from one existing within the other.”
In introducing Lue to the audience at the Harvard Ed Portal, Kevin Casey, Associate Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications, said Lue was passionate about connecting Harvard with the neighborhoods around Allston and Brighton, as well as with lifelong students all around the world.
“(Rob) is passionate about making Harvard more conscious of its responsibilities in the community, and the reality of bringing education to the masses,” Casey said, speaking at the Harvard Ed Portal. “This very building, with its top-notch technology, a performance space, an art gallery open to the public – is all the a result of the vision of Rob Lue, and he created it so that people in the community and people at Harvard could learn from one another.”
For Monserrat Santiago, a resident of Puerto Rico currently visiting Chelsea, Massachusetts, the talk was an opportunity to dive more deeply into her love of science – and her own health.
“As a chemist, I’m always looking for opportunities to learn more about science, so I was very happy I could come tonight,” she said. “I think it’s good for people to come to talks like this. I’m a cancer survivor, and I wanted to get a better idea of how cells work. I have more questions, but I feel like I have a better understanding of how the human body works, and what we need to do to ensure better health.”
Lue’s presentation was just one of many events held at Harvard as part of this year’s
Cambridge Science Festival (CSF), opened by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. Another CSF event focusing on the human form – Art, Science, & the Body – opened at the Ed Portal on April 23.