Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Why Structural Biology is awesome.

Structural Biology. I feel it gets a bit of a bad rep: boring, extremely complicated, far removed from actual biology. A strange melting pot of physics, mathematics and chemistry that somehow manages to produce a picture of what something might look like. Plus, the computer programs are really really hard to use.

OK, you're not wrong on the final point - it once took me 2 hours just to work out how to open a program. (Never let pride get the better of you, it's a total waste of time). 

But over the next few posts, I'm going to try and convince you that structural biology is actually pretty cool and (once you've worked out how to open programs...) very accessible. It's not removed from biology either - it's stuck to it like glue. 

I'll start with the basics. Structural biology is just the study of what stuff looks like. How it fits together. But obviously on a microscopic scale. And the end results are pretty beautiful: 

That's the protective antigen portion of the Anthrax toxin. It forms these pores on the surface of cells, allowing the other two pieces of the toxin to enter and do their damage inside the cell. You can find this on the RSCB PDB under the code 1TZO.

Research is carried out on proteins: long chains of amino acids that fold and twist in such a way to produce a huge array of different shapes. And these shapes are incredibly important - the cells in our body don't just know what to do. They need to be told: enter proteins. These guys pass signals from one to the next (aptly named signalling), sending messages between and within cells, telling them what to do. Get bigger; move over there; divide. None of it happens without the constant signalling that occurs via proteins. 

And this is where the shape (or structure of the protein) really comes into play. In order to pass on those signals, they need to be able to bind to each other - like a secret handshake. You want the right protein to meet the right partner - otherwise we'd have signals flying all over the place. Structural biology allows us to look at these unique structures in intricate detail, giving us a better picture of what is actually happening. 

I guess there are two reasons you might want to do this. 

Firstly, scientists love finding out new stuff - it's kind of the point of science. They go out into the unknown, pipette in hand, and come back with loads of new information for us to learn from. 

Secondly, if you don't know what something looks like, how are you supposed to design a drug to target it? When signalling goes wrong, and - for example - we lose the "Stop!" signal while the "Grow!" signal ends up on megaphone, diseases such as cancer can arise. We need drugs that can mute those out-of-control signals, and they therefore have to target whichever protein the signals are coming from. Enter structural biology: this allows us to examine drug-protein interactions on an atomic level, and can help us design more efficient and selective drugs for future treatments. 

If you'd like to learn a bit more about structural biology and drug design, head over to the London Science Museum next Wednesday (26th February from 18:45) for the Lates session. Jeroen Claus and I will be running an interactive workshop on those very things, and there are a tonne of other exciting talks and demonstrations going on all evening. 

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