Intra-(cellular) logistics and what it teaches us about digitization

Cells are masterpieces of evolution. They are everywhere, as reliable and resilient as nature can be. We are used to thinking of them as powerful machines, with a strictly encoded layout and highly efficient logistics. Well, we will have to re-think:
Cells are much more modern than that – and a role model for logistics in the digital age.

We´ve browsed into the (seemingly) unrelated field of theoretical biology because a Berlin-based Irish novelist promised us it would turn our world view upside down. And since we’ve read Daniel Nicholson´s Is the cell really a machine?, we indeed sense a similar effect for our view of intralogistics. Because the cells´ logistics in no way resembles the highly organized, super-efficient layouts of warehouses or factories. Precisely the opposite: Cells operate more randomly than planned, more flexible than rigid, their logistics is costly, and in a permanent state of disorder far from equilibrium.

Cells don't behave like a BEUMER conveyor belt, but like a Kiez neighborhood in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

Not even our sacred DNA works in the way we usually imagine: coding protein A that has function X, and protein B that has function Z. Nope, these proteins show “functional promiscuity”, just f…unctioning around however they like – hey, is this a cell or a swinger club?! And they can behave in entirely different ways, depending on the respective context they are in.

The core logistics part doesn’t look better. No, the cells don’t use the energy that our body creates to move stuff inside the cell – because stuff is moved continuously anyway. The energy is only used to give the movement a direction. Or, as elevator pitch: It´s like Uber, but for bodies.

But why on earth could such a close-to-chaos organization prevail everywhere and in every form of life? Nicholson has mainly two explanations. One is pure physics: Cells and proteins are soft and fluid, and planned efficiency needs a hard and dry environment. Just like in Tanguy Chouard´s pasta comparison: The protein´s problem is “to open the door with cooked spaghetti”. And its solution: “The spaghetti uses the lock to mould itself into the shape of the key, rather than forming the key beforehand.”

The other explanation is more philosophical: Cells are the purest form of life, and life is all about flexibility. Life forms have to adapt to survive, and their smallest building blocks do just the same.

Unlike the structures that we commonly build, biological structures are dynamic and self-organize: they sculpt themselves and change their own architecture.

What brings us back to our century and our business. Fluid systems, flexible structures – isn’t this what the digital era is all about? Leaving the hard and dry and efficiently engineered Industrial Age behind, while all the way randomly evolving in permanent Beta mode? Always close to chaos, wasting energy and talent en masse, but highly adaptable and context-sensitive?

So: If the cellular way of life has so much in common with the digital way of life – shouldn’t this mean that the cellular way of logistics can give us some hints of how the digital way of logistics might look like? We´ll try to find out during our next Kiez research trip to Kreuzberg. There’s more to come.

Daniel J. Nicholson: Is the cell really a machine? Journal of Theoretical Biology 477 (2019) 108–126 (PDF)

Tanguy Chouard: Breaking the protein rules. Nature 471 (2011), 151–153