|The Protein Dance
Proteins are essential to life. They participate in every biological process in the body. They are carriers like hemoglobin delivering oxygen to every cell, enzymes like DNA polymerase aiding gene replication, structural elements like actin and myosin responsible for muscle contraction, signaling molecules like insulin and endorphins, and antibodies that target foreign substances in the body for destruction.
Learning the structure of proteins provides clues to their function. And yet, proteins are by no means static creatures. They fold and unfold, they glom on to one another and let go. Dancing, tumbling, and partnering with others, these are dynamic, interactive molecules. All the time, they obey the laws of physics. Despite the remarkable diversity in functions of which proteins are capable, they have a major liability they are marginally stable. Stable proteins would be highly valued in a variety of industrial applications think insulin with a long shelf life.
It’s easier than ever to decipher the linear sequence of proteins imagine a string of pearls, each bead an amino acid. The challenge for researchers is determining the three-dimensional shape that proteins will assume in the cell picture that pearl necklace in a velvet pouch. Figuring out protein conformations both good ones and bad ones will answer so many important biological questions and improve the practice of medicine.
“I’ve been looking at proteins now for 20 years,” says Bystroff. “I was always curious about how these things got into their convoluted state.”
Both Colón and Bystroff have received National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Awards to support their protein folding research and educational activities.