Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

can we hear a cell?

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Light micrograph of elastic cartilage of the ear

When asked recently about influences on my writing, I expounded on literary things. But the exercise also led me to think about questions I come across in my day job as a scientist.

A former professor once told me that all philosophical questions were ultimately biochemical ones. I don’t know if he was right, but lately I’ve been coming across some pretty incredible things.

Example 1: Last week, in a lecture on cellular structure, I talked about how crowded the cell was; about how many proteins, organelles, and strings of nucleic acids were rubbing metaphorical shoulders and jostling for space. I proceeded to explain that the watery interior of the cell most people envision was, in fact, not watery at all. The interior of the cell was more like a gooey, gelatinous, honey-like chowder. After a moment of silence, one student raised her hand. “If there’s so much going on in a cell, can we hear a cell?"

Example 2: Earlier this term, we talked about DNA repair. Here is the gist: When our cells divide, DNA replicates rapidly, so errors creep in and mutate our genes. But, luckily for us, there are proteins that correct DNA (spelling) mistakes. This is also called DNA proofreading, which, for a writer, is irony incarnate. We have zero control over this process, by the way, and proofreading proteins still make mistakes. Shortly thereafter, I received the following email: “Many questions came to my mind after lecture, but here’s the main one: “Is a ‘wrong’ DNA edit okay if nobody ever knows about it?”

Example 3: There are elements in the human genome called transposons, aka “jumping genes.” These DNA sequences are programmed to first cut themselves out and then paste themselves into a different place. Some of them duplicate themselves during this process; others do not. I say programmed because these transposons encode proteins that allow them to jump around in the first place. They are, essentially, like self-scissors that first cut out and then paste themselves. The amazing thing is that transposons can carry tiny pieces of our DNA along with them when they jump, and it’s estimated that they have sculpted 30% of human genome. Why?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Irina Kovalyova

Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.

You can contact Irina throughout the month of June at

Go to Irina Kovalyova’s Author Page