The (model) elephant in the room

March 5, 2012 § 5 Comments

Banksy's Elephant In The Room

Jeremy Gunawardena recently wrote a very nice minireview about the lessons of the Michaelis-Menten equation for model-building (also available here).  Michaelis-Menten is an equation with many lessons for modern systems biologists (as I’ve  discussed before) and is so deeply ingrained in biochemistry that I am sure that most people who learn about it regard it as simply a fact of life; but instead, it is a simplified way of expressing certain facts about life, i.e. a model.  When Michaelis and Menten developed it, it was a highly theoretical construct that assumed the existence of a chimeric creature called the enzyme-substrate complex, which would not be observed until 30 years later.  Jeremy calls the enzyme-substrate complex the “elephant in the room”, and argues that what was remarkable about Michaelis and Menten’s accomplishment was not the fact that it fitted the experimental data, but that by doing so it provided evidence for something unseen.  Provocatively, he argues that the fact that MM was adopted so quickly by biologists, despite this great hole in the evidence, indicates that biology is more theoretical than physics; and that this, in turn, is because biology is more complicated than physics and needs all the help it can get.  Go and read it, and discuss.

Gunawardena J (2012). Some lessons about models from Michaelis and Menten. Molecular biology of the cell, 23 (4), 517-9 PMID: 22337858

§ 5 Responses to The (model) elephant in the room

  • Jue says:

    There is a typo near the end of this that makes Maud Menten out to be -19 years old, which I guess is correct modulo 100. I suppose it’s too late to correct this now?

    Awesome and fun essay. Will Jeremy write a history of systems biology some day?

    • Becky says:

      Alas. Poor Jeremy, I also had to point out to him that MBoC had introduced the concept of a “ready state”.

      I don’t know if he’ll write a history of SB, but MBoC have asked him to write more essays of this kind. Stay tuned!

  • A lovely and informative piece, with pointy bits. One peculiar fact that I learned: “In marked contrast, Maud Leonora Menten (1979–1960) was one of the first Canadian women to receive an MD, in 1911 at the University of Toronto.” She was also, apparently, one of the first Canadian women to age in reverse. And here I thought M&M were so successful in part because they chose not to model the reverse reaction…

  • Beaten to the punch! Fair play, Jue.

  • Jeremy Gunawardena says:

    Many thanks to all (proof)readers. Somewhere between the sublime tex and the ridiculous excuse for a document preparation system called Microsoft Word, mutations arose that seem to have been hideously resistant to error correction. It is always gratifying to amuse one’s audience but not by suggesting contravention of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Apologies!

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