Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Martinstraße 12, Klosterneuburg, 3400, Austria; Centre for the Study of Life Sciences (Egenis), University of Exeter, Byrne House, St. German's Road, Exeter, EX4 4PJ, United Kingdom. Electronic address: [Email]
It has become customary to conceptualize the living cell as an intricate piece of machinery, different to a man-made machine only in terms of its superior complexity. This familiar understanding grounds the conviction that a cell's organization can be explained reductionistically, as well as the idea that its molecular pathways can be construed as deterministic circuits. The machine conception of the cell owes a great deal of its success to the methods traditionally used in molecular biology. However, the recent introduction of novel experimental techniques capable of tracking individual molecules within cells in real time is leading to the rapid accumulation of data that are inconsistent with an engineering view of the cell. This paper examines four major domains of current research in which the challenges to the machine conception of the cell are particularly pronounced: cellular architecture, protein complexes, intracellular transport, and cellular behaviour. It argues that a new theoretical understanding of the cell is emerging from the study of these phenomena which emphasizes the dynamic, self-organizing nature of its constitution, the fluidity and plasticity of its components, and the stochasticity and non-linearity of its underlying processes.