Tuesday, September 11, 2007


"Mitochondria are tiny little organisms living in our cells. That gives you an idea of how tiny they are, doesn't it?"


"A human being is a whole world to a mitochondrion, just the way our planet is to us. But we're much more dependent on our mitochondria thn the earth is on us. The earth could get along perfectly well without people, bu if anything happened to our mitochondria, we'd die."
- A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle (1973)
I'm a bit sad that my first "back from vacation" post is in memory of Madeleine L'Engle, who died last Thursday at the age of 88. A Wrinkle in Time, a wonderful mixture of science fiction and fantasy, was one of the favorite books of my girlhood.

In the sequel, A Wind in the Door, L'Engle introduced legions of elementary school students to mitochondria. And not just the fact that mitochondria are important organelles inside our cells, but the idea that our mitochondria are derived from symbiotic prokaryotes. This was a cutting edge (and controversial) idea when A Wind in the Door was published in 1973, the endosymbiotic theory of mitochondrial origins having been proposed by Lynn Margulis just six years earlier.
"Your parents are scientists, aren't they?" She did not wait for an answer. "Let's see what you have to tell us."

Charles Wallace ("You should have known better!" Meg scolded him that night) stood and said, "What I'm interested in right now are the farandolae and the mitochondria."

"What was that, Charles? The mighty what"

"Mitochondria. They and the farandolae come from the prokaryocytes ---"

"The what?"

"Well, billions of years ago they probably swam into what eventually became our eukaryotic cells and they've just stayed there. They have their own DNA and RNA, which means they're quite separate from us. They have a symbiotic relationship with us, and the amazing thing is that we're completely dependent on them for our oxygen."

"Now, Charles, suppose you stop making silly things up, and the next time I call on you, don't try to show off. Now, George, you tell the class something . . . "
Now, the science isn't quite right: mitochondria don't produce oxygen. They do use oxygen, though, to generate ATP, which the cell then uses as a source of chemical energy. Mitochondria are essential to our utilization of oxygen as an energy source. L'Engle may have confused mitochondria with chloroplasts, which are found only in plants. Chloroplasts also are thought to have originated endosymbiotically and they do produce oxygen as a byproduct of the conversion of carbon dioxide and water to glucose during photosynthesis.

And that brings us to the farandolae, which are microscopic life forms inside mitochondria. Just as mitochondria are necessary for our cells, farandolae are essential for our mitochondria. They are, of course, entirely fictional and that's where the story slides into fantasy. Unlike our mitochondria, which are derived from ancient prokaryotes, the farandolae are living organisms that have names and can communicate, in a fashion.

Despite - or because of - L'Engle's imaginative take on cell biology, many kids were inspired to study science. The story inspired blogger the dubious biologist's PhD work:
Ms. L’Engle is the one of the deities of my childhood pantheon, right after and essentially tied with Ray Bradbury. I pretty much wore out the library copy of A Wrinkle in Time. Her Time Trilogy was the first book set I ever bought with my own money. I learned about tesseracts and mitochondria from Ms. L’Engle. I even quoted from A Wind in the Door in my Ph.D. dissertation.

I was fascinated by what she called the “farandolae”, living beings within the mitochondria that were born and grew as freely mobile slyph (as I envisioned them) organisms but then had to mature and root themselves in order for the mitochondria to survive. When I saw my first micrograph of the inner mitochondrial membrane, I was mesmerized by the small bumps that would eventually be identified as the FoF1 ATPase or ATP synthase. The key to making the energy of life in the powerhouse of the cell! In the back of my mind, I’ve always thought of them as farandolae.
The power of science fiction - even when the "science" is largely fictional - to stimulate kids' interest in science is one of the reasons I think science fiction books should be included in every elementary and high school reading list.

Thanks for the farandolae Ms. L'Engle!

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  1. Anonymous4:38 PM

    Thanks for the crosslink!

    Someday I need to blog about how different science fiction folks got me into science, in particular Ben Bova and Ray Bradbury.

  2. I liked biology in school as well as science. There's a bit of it in my newest science fiction book "Partially Human" as well as an upcoming novel I'm working on.

  3. Thank you for the post! You know, I always, always had wondered if farandolae were made up. I sort of guessed they were, but mostly still wished they weren't.

    I suppose I should have learned better in microbiology, but I quickly learned a) I a not a morning person, and b) nobody takes attendance in university. And that was the end of that.

  4. peggy this is an amazing blog!

  5. Anonymous9:44 AM

    nice info about the farandolae. i think it could very well be real, since everything contains dna, even the extreemly microscopic things. the things don't even necissarily have to be organisms. farandolae, again, probably is real, even though scientists have had a extreemly difficult time finding it, because you have to take the nucleus of a cell, and then the farandolae is millions of times smaller. faradolae is just very small dna, but you could turn it into somthing big, like use it for cloning, for example, if a much, much more powerful microscope is ever developed. i'm reading a wind in the door right now, actually just starting it, and its pretty cool how they use extreemly deep biology in it.

  6. Anonymous1:25 PM

    great post, I love the books, they are part of the reason I am interested in physics.

    to "Anonymous" above me: extremely has one 'e' (sorry I hate spelling mistakes).

  7. Anonymous5:48 AM

    In regards to "extremely has one 'e' (sorry I hate spelling mistakes)"

    I am counting two e's in extremely (sorry I hate lame people)

  8. Anonymous1:44 PM

    When I read THE WIND IN THE DOOR I thought, wow. It is absolutely fantastic that L'Engle incorporated actual microbiology into a children's[even sci-fi] book.

  9. Anonymous9:28 PM

    actually i couldn't find the info about farandolae but i got good info from you thanks!

  10. Anonymous2:49 PM

    Thanks for this interesting comment on the works of Madeleine L'Engle. Mainly people tend to only see the nice stories about family, friendship or christian motives. Of course they are nice, but there is much more to them when you dig a little deeper.

    Oh, and there are even three 'e' in 'extremely'. Sorry if I misspelled something - I am German ;-D.

  11. Anonymous3:39 PM

    even though people say farandolae do not exist, i will always believe in them in my heart, make that in my cells! It is rediculasly funny hearing you guys fight over how many e's there are in extremely

  12. Anonymous8:01 AM

    I have just finished reading "A Wind in a Door". That is what got me wondering if they are real or is it something that Madeleine L'Engle. The book is very well writed and better that the first one.

  13. Re-reading the book and love how it inspired you. Also finding the books so inspiring to learn more. The first thoughts were of a new type of pasta when farandolae was introduced :)

  14. Useful information. Lucky me I discovered your website accidentally, and I am stunned why this twist of fate did not happened in advance!
    I bookmarked it.

  15. That's the beauty of science 'fiction'. It brings such wonder to the world. are you so very sure Farandolae are fiction? There seems to be many electron microscopic pictures of them.
    and they are exactly as described. The most vital part of the mitochondria. There are other names such as ATPase, or ATP synthase complex but that doesn't quite capture their nature I think as well as the original farandolae.

    1. Anonymous6:15 PM


      I mean come on. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/03/ATP_synthase.svg

      Tell me this isn't what is being described in the book. It's obviously the Farandolae

  16. Hello! Thank you for the great post. I would definitely sign in to your blog. Out of curiosity, how would you pronounce "Farandolae"? Thanks

  17. Anonymous1:16 AM

    (Far-en-Doe-Lie) or (Fare-an-Doe-Lay) or a Variation of the two...

  18. Graham Daniel4:11 PM

    I think I should add a plug for Madeleine L'Engle, It's been my belief after reading a web page titled "the whispering Mitochondria, that not only do Mitochondria communicate with each other, but I think they are the operating system for most life on earth, also encompassing instincts and their transfer through the bottleneck of conception and that they posit a mechanism for deep memory storage and are a co-evolved extension of the organic neural network known as a brain. We have to halt thinking of human evolution and redefine, evolution of the human symbionts. "I" as a human am also "We" as the collection of Mitochondrial symbionts and host human that makes up the totality of the body and consciousness that is "I/We" are together. Also relevent to understanding consciousness is unconsciousness and Luka Turin of Ted Talk scent biophysics fame is discovering with a team the role of mitochondria in consciousness and being unconscious, via anaesthetic. For Madeleine L'Engle to target mitochondria in her book hints at a powerful intuition and insight that has taken humanity the internet and AI, many years to again bring into focus. While much of what I write above is speculative, my intuition suggests that mitochondrial function is far more than cellular power-houses, we(and other species) have co-evolved since that first mitochondria snuggled up with a host cell and for the above unproven suggestions to be wrong, seems far less likely than true, given a millennia of co-evolution of hosts and symbionts. We are one.


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