How Proteins Work

by Amy Collier


Every morning Cytokines wake up for another goddamn day at the office.

It is difficult to get out of bed when they know today will be a day exactly like any other. They consider for a moment: “Should I even bother?” Ultimately, they drag themselves up and go through the routine: coffee, shower, suit up, out the door.

“What if I wore the same suit for a week straight? Would anyone notice? Would anyone care?” they wonder, on their daily bus route from the primarily residential neighborhood in which they reside to the high rises of downtown Amyopolis. “That’s right. The exact same blue pin stripes and pants and gray pullover.” With a closet full of variations on that theme, such a test of limits would likely go unnoticed. It was partly their own fault. During Cytokines’ last performance review, Tumor-Necrosis Factor Alpha called recent cytokine storms “cytokine drizzles.”

They get into work and check their inbox for emails regarding humoral and cell-based immune responses. Cells, cells, cells. All. Day. Long. An inflammation here. An infection there. Life is a constant rush of cells, and all Cytokines can do is roll with the punches, both proverbial and literal.

“I release you,” macrophages joke at the end of a check-in. Cytokines smile, then turn and exit sneering. At lunch, Cytokines stare out the window forlornly and consider their life choices. Cytokines see the building across the way where hormones work. Everyone knows about hormones. If they don’t exactly understand what hormones are, they at least have passing knowledge. Epinephrine. Insulin. But Cytokines are lesser known, underappreciated. A lot of friends don’t even understand what it is Cytokines do. Cytokines stopped bothering to try and explain and simply resigned to professional obscurity.

After lunch, a presentation: “What To Do if Cancer Strikes Amyopolis.” Cytokines tunes out during the talk. Maybe we would be better off, they think, and return to their desk and listen to every Elliot Smith album at once.

The clock finally reaches 5:00 pm. Cytokines exit the building, and return to the residential neighborhood where their day began. They pass the hours drinking alone until it is time once again to give in to sleep and the nagging dawn.


Insulin has been around the block, knows a thing or two about Amyopolis, and what lies outside. Life is about steady regulations. You do your work thoroughly and consistently — -you don’t rush through things and exhibit all sorts of risky behaviors, Insulin reflects, eying the red Lamborghini in the lot outside the window. SOME proteins could stand to learn a thing or two about steady. SOME proteins should stop trying to inhibit Insulin’s workflow, and just let Insulin do its thing. But why listen to Insulin? It’s only been a crucial protein for billions of years.

A corner of the poster that reads “A healthy liver means you’ll live a little longer!” is drooping. Insulin rises from its upholstered swivel chair and tapes the corner back up. Someone opens the door.

“Halt! Glucose there?” Insulin calls out. Cortisol laughs and hands Insulin some paperwork to sign. “Oh, Insulin.”


Seconds after waking, Epinephrine zooms out of Chromaffin onto the freeway in a red Lamborghini, ready for another day of killin’ it at the office.

“Hey Epinephrine, nice to see you,” everyone will say as Epinephrine passes by the water cooler. Damn straight. Without Epinephrine where would all these jokers be? “I want to shake things up,” Epinephrine provokes at the end of the first morning meeting. “It’s go big or go home time.”
Everyone knows what Epinephrine is about, and Epinephrine is about crushing it. Heart attack? Not on Epinephrine’s watch. Immediate physical danger to Amyopolis? Yeah the fuck right. Epinephrine speed dials a contact.

“I’m sorry. I can’t give you access to the nerves.” The beta receptor explains again.

“You’re busting my balls, Beta.” Epinephrine paces with the phone to its ear. “How can we work this out? Help me help you.”

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do at this point. We’re fully committed.”

“Tell me who you’re doing business with. The beta blockers?”

“You know I can’t give you that information.”

Goddamn the beta blockers. Godddamn them all to hell.

“Let’s not let what happened in 2010 happen again,” Insulin says at the end of the 4:00 creative. What the hell did it mean by that? What the fucking hell did it mean? Who even let stale old Bitchosaurus Rex into the creative meeting? The earthquake and the poorly hung shelf on the wall, if that’s what the incompetent asshat (who Epinephrine always has to clean up after) was referring to, it had come out of nowhere. There was literally nothing Epinephrine could have done. Was Epinephrine in charge of tectonic plates now? Anyway, they had all survived, hadn’t they?

Lying awake at night, all the fates that could end Amyopolis hit Epinephrine. Bear attack. African vacation culminating in Ebola. (I mean what can the fastest response do about Ebola? Nothing, that’s what.) Sailboat accident. Spiders. They are all in the room, but there is nowhere to run. Epinephrine jumps out of the bed full of spiders. “Oh, god — Oh god — Oh god.” It crumbles to the floor, rocking back and forth, and pictures the ultimately inescapable collapse of Amyopolis over and over and over again.

Amy Collier once saw Fabio at an airport. Fabio is an Italian model who has appeared on many classic romance novels, such as Love Me with Fury, Lovestorm, and More Than a Feeling. He is 6’3” barefoot; usually in cowboy boots. Follow Amy on Twitter.

Adam Waito is an illustrator and musician living in Montreal. You can find more of his work at and He likes cats but they make him sneeze.