Another way to think about the cell is to compare it to a pencil factory. Billions of pencils are made every year. But, as immortalized in a 1958 essay by the economist Leonard Read, the process to make each pencil is incredibly complicated. The wood is harvested, the graphite is mined, the lacquer synthesized… and so on till all those ingredients come together in an orderly manner to produce one of the most common commodities of modern life.

A typical single-cell organism.
A typical single-cell organism.
Image: Mariana Ruiz/Wikimedia

Now consider one particular type of cell, the pancreatic islet. Some 3 million of them exist in every person’s pancreas and each of those cells creates the hormone insulin, which regulates the amount of sugar in our blood. When the islets don’t work properly, you get diabetes. Each islet is like a single pencil factory, assembling insulin molecules from a variety of different chemicals that the body sources from diverse raw materials in the food you eat and the air you breathe. An insulin molecule is many times more complex than a pencil, and in a healthy pancreas the islets produce trillions of them each day without any mistake.

Each cell in the human body is a highly sophisticated factory of this sort, and they all work perfectly in tandem (most of the time) based on simple instructions. They also produce very little waste, relative to the complexity of work they perform. How they achieve that is the discovery for which Ohsumi won the Nobel: using equally sophisticated systems, present in each cell, to break down and recycle waste matter.

There are, of course, many other such magical tales science has to tell: from the Big Bang to quantum computers. And, yet, none of those tales are as accessible as the world of the smallest unit of life. All you need to delve into cell biology is some water from a pond or a river and a $1 microscope.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.