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Continuity of shapes We have seen in the preceding chapter the role played by spontaneous self-assembly in the formation of cellular structures. Note, however, that the cellular factories do not build copies of themselves next to themselves or in a separate compartment. They grow harmoniously and then divide. So do many intracellular entities. It may happen, in such cases, that existing structures affect the manner in which certain self-assembly processes take place. Membranes, those tenuous films that envelop all cells and partition many into numerous distinct compartments, are a characteristic example.

There, the codon dictates which of the 20 available amino acids is to be attached to the growing chain by the ribosomal machinery. The choice of amino acids by the codons is not made by a direct interaction between the two entities. It occurs indirectly by way of special RNA molecules called transfer RNAs (tRNAs). The function of these molecules is to carry the amino acids and to bring them to the catalytic site on the ribosome, ready to be attached to the growing protein chain. Some 70 to 80 nucleotides long, tRNAs have a typical cloverleaf structure.

We shall meet it as forming the basis of all genetic information transfers. Complementarity is often illustrated by the relationship between lock and key, or between mortise and tenon. The image is suggestive but only partly appropriate. Biological mortises and tenons have over those of cabinet makers the advantage of being more flexible and adaptable, so that they can to some extent mold themselves on each other. In addition, they bear with them, in the form of mutual affinities, the “glue” that helps them stick together.

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