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The Symposia, 1933 — 2003

1992:   The Cell Surface, Vol. LVII

Organizer: Bruce Stillman

Table of Contents

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John Donne wrote, in one of his great Elegies, “No man is an island, entire of itself”. Nor, for that matter is a cell. All cells have to communicate with their surroundings, whether they are unicellular organisms in an aqueous medium or packed together in the tissues of a multicellular organism. These communications between what is inside the cell and what is outside are mediated by the cell membrane and its associated molecules, called collectively the “cell surface”.

The cell surface had figured prominently in the early years of the Symposia. The meetings on Surface Phenomena (1933), Excitation Phenomena (1936) and Permeability and the Nature of Cell Membranes (1940) were very much in the line of the contemporary interest in biophysical analysis, and treated the cell membrane essentially as an inert wrapper around the cell. There was no knowledge or suspicion that the membrane was more than the lipid bilayer proposed by Davson and Danielli. Participants in the earlier meetings would have been astounded by the range of phenomena that by 1992 could be subsumed by the phrase “The Cell Surface”.

The Symposium reflected this remarkable diversity of phenomena, as Mel Simon made clear in his summary: “The Cell Surface Regulates Information Flow, Material Transport and Cell Identity”. The most remarkable change wrought by 50 years of research is that the cell surface became regarded as a complex structure,

pierced by channels, bristling with receptors that span the membrane, coated by all manner of extracellular molecules, and linked to the cytoskeleton within the cell. Simon illustrated this with a figure representing the cell surface as imagined in 1940, 1972 and 1992. Furthermore, the membrane is no longer a passive mediator between the interior of the cell and its environment; it is dynamic, pores forming to take up or secrete molecules, and adhesion molecules directing cell interactions. And the influence of the membrane is felt in diverse systems–there were sessions covering the role of the cell surface in development, immunology and neurobiology, as well as in more “classical” cell biology topics.

This was the last Symposium attended by Barbara McClintock. Her first Symposium had been Genes and Chromosomes: Structure and Organization in 1941, and she had been in residence at the Laboratory since 1942.

Jan A. Witkowski

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