Like a fissionable isotope, knowledge has a half-life. Fortunately, teachers can craft information in ways that can change the nuclear heart of subject matter to ensure interest, linkage, and retention, all through the telling of a good story. Taking students' existing knowledge and background into account to carefully craft appropriate analogy-integrated stories, key concepts and information can be rendered familiar, accessible, engaging, and enjoyable. “The Marvels of the (Squabbling) Cell” is an example story that employs anthropomorphosis to convey general cell biology in a lighthearted manner in which personal experience and social rules enable a deeper understanding of complex biological subject matter. Equally important, the story lives in students as a conceptual landmark that remains in view during instruction.

Analogies abound when describing the cell. Factories, families, households, and pack-n-ship stores are just a few that have been invoked to help us understand the smooth, coordinated function of its organelles. But I don't think along those lines. I like to think of the cell as composed of a loose confederation of employees – the kind who whisper behind each other's backs and feel overworked and underappreciated. Something like this:

“If it wasn't for me, you would all be toast!” Lysosome mumbled a little louder than usual, and to no one in particular. He had the habit of talking to himself most of the time. Whether to get attention or just blow off steam, no one knew. But it was clear that Lysosome liked nobody and nobody liked him. Sure, the rest of the organelles liked how he kept the trash in check, consuming it with those digestive enzymes, and really appreciated how he destroyed the invading matter that that goofy PM (Plasma Membrane) let in from time to time. But there was something about Lysosome that was mysterious and, well, dangerous. Until last year no one could quite put words to it, but then an adjacent cell passed away. At first everyone was a little sad, having lost a great set of good friends. But shortly after, PM whispered that he thought he heard those organelles screaming something right before they died. Something like “Hey, what are you doing? No, Lysosome, no, don't digest us, not us! Nooooo!” And PM said all was quiet after that. Since then, no one has looked at Lysosome the same way.

As self-contained and bitter as Lysosome is, Mitochondrion is just the opposite. There is no question that she loves her work, and she isn't shy to let everyone know it. With an undying smile, she sets about making ATP in a way that seems almost magical. Unlike Lysosome, who gets rid of stuff no one wants anymore, Mitchondrion is making stuff everyone wants – energy! That makes her a bit of a cellular celebrity. Just often enough, she flashes her own DNA and lets it slip that she used to be off on her own, not associated with cells at all, but only joined up with cells in the distant past because she liked the company so much. That makes the rest of the organelles so grateful, but a little anxious at the thought that she might decide at some point to go her own way again. When such things are brought up in front of Nucleus, she laughs and says, “What rubbish!” and assures them that they are all family and will never break apart.

Speaking of Nucleus, she really does seem to be above it all. She deals evenly and directly with the rest of the organelles, and is always professional – if something needs to be done she does it, no questions asked. Everyone's jobs are, either directly or indirectly, dictated by her. While Lysosome has an air of dark mystery to him, Nucleus is the opposite – a wonderful, bright mystery. Several times in the past, all the organelles had seen her work her wonder of division. Her DNA organizing, lining up, dividing, and cleaving into a brand new twin cell! The first time, of course, they all thought their world was coming to an end, and PM was hysterical with all the stretching and changes he was experiencing. But throughout the whole process, Nucleus was talking to them, keeping them all calm with “What's all the fuss?” and “There, there.”

There is a love-hate relationship that exists between all the organelles and PM. They have to love him because he provides so much protection from the outside, surrounding them all in a snug bag. And most of the time he allows in and kicks out what he is supposed to. But he doesn't always work so well. Sometimes when creepy stuff is moving along outside the cell, darn if PM doesn't invite it in! The rest of the organelles will be yelling, “No man, not that!” but PM acts a little goofy, just shrugs and says, “I can't help myself, I'm semipermeable!” It makes everyone mad because PM doesn't even seem to care, like this semipermeable characteristic forgives all. Luckily, much as he creeps everyone out, Lysosome usually steps up and handles the problem.

Another organelle with attitude is Ribosome. Ribosome likes hard work, but he isn't sunny about it like Mitochondrion. When he overhears the bickering of the other organelles he says, “Shut up and get back to work, you maggots!” No one argues with Ribosome because they can see that he is pulling his load and more. Nucleus has a nonstop stream of instructions being sent to Ribosome, written on an RNA tablet, and Ribosome, dutifully, makes whatever protein the message says to make. Bang, bang, bang – out they come, some for export to the blood, some for use in the cell. He says that if he weren't so busy he'd show the rest of the organelles some one-armed push-ups, whatever those are.

Smooth Endoplasmic Reticulum (SER) seems pleasant enough, and gets along with the rest of the organelles pretty well. She has the personality of a Miss Congeniality and makes polite offers to try to deliver what the organelles need, which she does most of the time through her network of tubes. She does her share of digesting stuff, lipids mostly, but maintains a good relationship delivering lipids to Golgi and Lysosome (yes, she will even talk to him) and most membranes. A quasi-fraternal twin, Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum (RER), has a bit of a split personality that puts off other organelles. Also snaking through the cell like SER, RER has an attitude, probably because she is studded with those rigid, duty-driven Ribosomes who would spoil almost anyone's party. Still, she's delivering the proteins Ribosome makes to Ms. Golgi, and they are all grateful for that.

Which brings us to Golgi. Some of the other organelles think she is a little bit moody. Sometimes a complainer, sometimes pleasant, her attitude reflects how busy she is. When times are slow she will laugh and chat, swap rumors. But once the proteins start flying down from RER, the other organelles know not to even try to speak to her. If they do, they get their membranes bitten off. Once, when particularly busy making membranes and packaging some important proteins and carbohydrates for export, she got into it with Ribosome. Ribosome barked for her to “Suck it up and pick up the pace, maggot!” To which she replied, “You give me that maggot stuff one more time and I'll shut down, then you can eat your flipping proteins, got it, sonny?” It looked to the other organelles that neither was going to back down, when Nucleus calmed things down, sent fewer RNA messengers to Ribosome, and allowed Golgi to catch up.

Although it seems from time to time like cells are going to fly apart from the varied personalities of their organelles, they understand they have a job to do, and failure is not an option! It gets pretty hot on the job, working in the cytoplasm. And when the enzymes, nutrients, genetic material, and respiration products are really flowing in there, tempers can flare. But under the calm, professional guidance of Nucleus, organelles put aside their petty squabbles and get on with the job of life, for which I am eternally grateful.

        The End

The “Squabbling Cell” story is designed to follow and supplement an introductory lesson on animal cell biology including general functions of organelles and their coordinated activities and interdependence. Following Glynn's (1994) recommendations for design and implementation of effective analogies in teaching science, prior to constructing/delivering the lesson, this story (or any other suitably purposed tale) should be reviewed to ensure that students have received the biological content they need to link analogies to biological concepts. In addition, the teacher needs to ask: “Do my students have the experiential background to link story elements to biological concepts and social references, and to land on the target square where humor, wonder, curiosity, and drama augment acquisition and retention of the lesson?”

I see this story as a pleasant escape from routine, something read in class and serving as a lesson-in-a-break. When introducing a story, teachers should provide an enticing verbal “preview” in a tone matching the piece, to create anticipation and motivation to read it. They should also clearly state how the story ties to biology lesson objectives. After it's been read, the story should be discussed to fill any key content gaps, correct misconceptions, and determine educational and affective utility. When appropriate, teachers might refer back to the piece as students venture further into the cell biology curriculum.

Glynn, S.M. (
Teaching Science with Analogies: A Strategy for Teachers and Textbook Authors
(Research Report No. 15).
Athens, GA
University of Georgia
; and
College Park, MD
University of Maryland, National Reading Research Center