Cell Biology and Sustainability by the Numbers


Course given on fall semester by Ron Milo, teaching fellows: Ron Sender and Lior Greenspoon

Wednesdays 11:15-13:00 @ Belfer auditorium

Course email (to send exercises, suggestions, errors, insights...): cellbiologybythenumbers@gmail.com

Main reading resource: "Cell Biology by the Numbers" book

Vignettes that reveal how numbers serve as a sixth sense to understanding our cells

Course outline

Subject 1 (09/11/2022): Quantitative reasoning in molecular and cell biology

Exercise 1 (due by 16/11/2022)

A filmed version of the lecture


Subject 2 (16/11/2022): Size and mass

Exercise 2 (due by 30/11/2022)

A filmed version of the lecture

Slides from the lecture - photo gallery of sizes in cell biology

Solution to Q3


Subject 3 (30/11/22): Concentration and absolute numbers

Exercise 3 (due by 14/12/22)

A filmed version of the lecture

Slides from the lecture - photo gallery of concentrations in cell biology


Subject 4 (07/12/22): Number of cells in the human body

A filmed version of the lecture


Subject 5 (14/12/2022): Rates

Exercise 4 (due by 21/12/2022)

A filmed version of the lecture


Subject 6 (21/12/2022): Energy, food and humanity

Exercise 5 (due by 04/01/2023)

A filmed version of the lecture


Subject 7 (28/12/2022): The global biomass of wild mammals


Subject 8 (04/01/2023): Information

A filmed version of the lecture



General info on the final assignment 

Guidelines for the final assignment can be found in the following document:

Final course presentation format and execution


Oral presentation

  • 5 minutes with calculation on white board, 2 minute extension for extra aids/features (multi-answer question presented to class, object for demonstration etc.)
  • Pay attention to unit conversions, significant digits, big clear handwriting, keep it simple and elegant.
  • Assignment of dates will be posted soon!

Written vignette

  • 2-3 pages long, with introduction of the question, some background, the calculation, possible outcomes and interesting conclusions.
  • To be submitted (after feedback from class peers) 2 weeks after the oral presentation.


18/01/2023 - Start of student presentation sessions.


Student presentation schedule

The student presentation schedule can be found in the following document:

Student presentation time table

  • If you can't make it to the date you are assigned to, please find someone to switch with and notify us of the change.
  • If you prefer a different email to receive feedback and comments to, let us know and we'll update the email address.

Course description and syllabus:

Over the past decades, biology has evolved rapidly from a descriptive, qualitative discipline to a more analytical, data-driven and quantitative one. Our ability to collect numbers that describe the most basic molecular processes within the cell has increased significantly, and simple calculations based on these data can provide important insights and enrich our scientific intuition.

This course is aimed at exposing students to the practice of making back of the envelope calculations (so called Fermi problems) with key numbers in biology, and its useful applications in research. We will learn how to identify the major factors that determine the order of magnitude of the results, when to allow simplification, how to calculate them efficiently, and how to avoid common pitfalls.

The course is composed of weekly lectures on different aspects of quantitative cell biology through many examples of basic (yet often surprising) questions:

- Size and geometry (e.g. What is larger, mRNA or the protein it codes for? How many cells are there in a human?)

- Concentrations and absolute numbers (e.g. What is the elemental and macromolecular composition of a cell? How many virions result from a single viral infection?)

- Energies and Forces (e.g. What is the power consumption of a cell? How much does protein synthesis take out of the entire energy budget of a cell?)

- Rates and durations (e.g. How long does it take cells to copy their genomes? What is faster, transcription or translation? What are the time scales for diffusion in cells?)

- Information and errors (e.g. What is the mutation rate during genome replication? What is the error rate in transcription and translation?)

The last few meetings of the course will be dedicated to presentations of student calculations as a final assignment.

Accompanying texts:

Course book is freely available at: bionumbers

Specific reading material will be given during the course.

* Those who did not take a molecular biology course should read the first few chapters of "Essential Cell Biology", Alberts et al, Garland Science

Other recommended readings (none compulsory, all for enrichment and fun):



Attendance and active participation is required.

50% - Weekly assignments

50% - Final assignment (presentation + written vignette)

Interesting links:

BioNumbers Database

BioNumber of the month

Key numbers in cell biology (with reference links)

Physical Biology of the cell at Caltech - Rob Phillips group

Order of Magnitude Physics course (Prof. Nir Shaviv, in hebrew)