Europe

The Greek Crisis Reminds Me of Mitosis From Bio Class


The Greek Crisis Reminds Me of Mitosis From Bio Class

Illustration by 731

(Updated at 5 p.m. ET)

The closer Greece gets to rupturing with the euro zone, the more I am reminded of long-ago 10th grade biology, in which we learned about the process of cell division: mitosis, a word of Greek origin.

In both cases, the split is preceded by a long chain of events that are mostly invisible to an outside observer. There is a gradual disengagement. At the beginning, the thing is clearly one. At the end, it is clearly two. In between it’s all a bit murky.

There are huge differences, of course. The biggest one is that mitosis produces two daughter cells that are identical to the original. That would not be the case in a euro zone breakup. The reemergence of the drachma would be more like a birth than mitosis.

Another difference from mitosis is that nothing is certain where people are involved. Despite their drubbing at the polls, the parties that favor sticking with the euro currency may succeed in forming a government. Greece may yet stick with the single currency.

Still, it’s intriguing to compare the two processes. Here are bits from the Wikipedia entry on mitosis interspersed with their Hellenic equivalents.

INTERPHASE
The cell prepares itself for cell division. Interphase is divided into three phases. … During all three phases, the cell grows by producing proteins and cytoplasmic organelles. … Interphase takes up roughly 90 percent of a cell’s lifespan.

Greece’s happy interphase lasted from its adoption of the euro in 2001 until 2009. Greece hosted a successful Olympic Games, the economy grew briskly, and interest rates were nearly as low as Germany’s.

PROPHASE
Normally, the genetic material in the nucleus is in a loosely bundled coil called chromatin. At the onset of prophase, chromatin fibers become tightly coiled, condensing into discrete chromosomes.

In the fall of 2009, the new Socialist government revealed that the previous government had understated the budget deficit. Greece was massively overspending, breaking the rules it agreed to when it joined the currency union.

METAPHASE
Microtubules find and attach to kinetochores in prometaphase. Then the two centrosomes start pulling the chromosomes through their attached centromeres toward the two ends of the cell.

Investors abruptly lost faith and demanded higher yields on government debt to compensate themselves for hidden risk. In May 2010, Greece accepted its first official bailout. Its ties to the rest of Europe began to fray noticeably.

ANAPHASE
When every kinetochore is attached to a cluster of microtubules and the chromosomes have lined up along the metaphase plate, the cell proceeds to anaphase. … The proteins that bind sister chromatids together are cleaved. … Next, the polar microtubules elongate.

This is when the Greek crisis really began to resemble mitosis. In December 2011 the European Central Bank offered low-interest three-year loans to euro zone banks. Greek banks used a lot of the borrowed money to buy the bonds of their own government—even as investors from other countries were dumping Greek debt. The divisions in Europe deepened.

TELOPHASE
The polar microtubules continue to lengthen, elongating the cell even more. Corresponding daughter chromosomes attach at opposite ends of the cell. … Both sets of chromosomes, now surrounded by new nuclei, begin to “relax” or decondense back into chromatin.

Now, political fissures have widened into a chasm. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras gave up trying to form a coalition government on Monday after nearly six hours of talks in Athens. The leftist coalition Syriza, the second-biggest vote-getter, which has vowed to cancel the bailout terms, now will try to form a government.

What’s next? After mitosis comes cytokinesis, the final rupture. In biology it’s inevitable. In Europe it’s merely increasingly likely.

Coy_190
Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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