Cell

Scientists have finally visualized the endoplasmic reticulum, and it looks a place where we'd forget where we left our cars.

Scientists have known about the endoplasmic reticulum for nearly seven decades: It's a protein-synthesizing object squished inside our cells next to nucleoli and mitochondria and all the other fun organelles.

But what they didn't realize up until now is that the ER has a shape very similar to one of the world's most mundane structures: the spiral-ramped parking garage. That's right – if you were a member of that "history-making" team that piloted a submarine into a human body in 1966, you conceivably could've spent hours wandering around the reticulum, trying to remember where you parked the dang thing.

The startling discovery of the ER's "helicoid" was made by Mark Terasaki of the University of Connecticut Health Center and researchers from Columbia, Harvard, Tel Aviv University and elsewhere; the journal Cell published the news in a July 18 paper titled, "Stacked Endoplasmic Reticulum Sheets Are Connected by Helicoidal Membrane Motifs." What's behind the corkscrew in our cells? Well, the ER is dotted with molecules called ribosomes that are in the business of making proteins. One of the most efficient shapes for sheltering tons of ribosomes happens to be the spiral, because it maximizes surface area in a small amount of space. And thus it "resembles a parking garage," according to the study's abstract, "in which the different levels are connected by helicoidal ramps."

Here's the revolutionary new image of it:

To pound on the parking-lot similarity some more, if a cell wants to increase its protein production, it adds layers to the reticulum, kind of like how a developer would bulk up a garage. Science Codex goes into the explanation for that:

When a cell needs to secrete more proteins, it can reduce the distances between sheets to pack even more membrane into the same space. Think of it as a parking garage that can add more levels as it gets full. "The theory explains that this structure is seen in nature because it maximizes the cell's ability to make a large number of proteins while minimizing the energetic cost to the cell," Rapoport says.

Excellent work, guys. Now please get cracking on the next problem: Is it true that the Golgi apparatus really looks like a waste-transfer station?

Top image courtesy the journal Cell

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    Talent May Be Shifting Away From Superstar Cities

    According to a new analysis, places away from the coasts in the Sunbelt and West are pulling ahead when it comes to attracting talented workers.

  2. photo: A stylish new funeral parlor called Exit Here in London.
    Design

    Death Be Not Dull

    U.K. restaurateur Oliver Peyton’s newest project, a style-forward funeral home called Exit Here, aims to shake up a very traditional industry.

  3. Maps

    The Three Personalities of America, Mapped

    People in different regions of the U.S. have measurably different psychological profiles.

  4. photo: A woman crosses an overpass above the 101 freeway in Los Angeles, California.
    Transportation

    Navigation Apps Changed the Politics of Traffic

    In an excerpt from the new book The Future of Transportation, CityLab’s Laura Bliss adds up the “price of anarchy” when it comes to traffic navigation apps.

  5. photo: Helsinki's national library
    Design

    How Helsinki Built ‘Book Heaven’

    Finland’s most ambitious library has a lofty mission, says Helsinki’s Tommi Laitio: It’s a kind of monument to the Nordic model of civic engagement.

×