Dispatches from the bio frontier

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By Roger Snodgrass

The time is ripe for the general public to become conversant with the basic ingredients of modern biology and particularly about structural genomics, one of its promising branches.

By now intellectually curious adults and precocious children will surely have noticed at least one of those colorful swirling ribbons that are used to represent a protein.

But what are proteins beyond the diet, and what is their relation to the squigglies?

“Proteins are little molecular machines,” said Thomas Terwilliger, a biochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and one of the world’s leaders in developing methods for developing three-dimension pictures of proteins. “They do all kinds of things, and that’s why we like to harness them to do things we would like them to do.”

Because knowledge of the structures themselves is useful, biologists have gone to some lengths to make, purify and grow crystals of proteins that can be x-rayed and interpreted in terms of the chains of amino acids from which they are constituted.

That’s how they get to be color-coded curlicues, which are a kind of shorthand in the language of molecular graphics that offers a different way to look at the protein.

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