Physicists are getting more involved in the fight against diseases by studying the folding of proteins, which they hope will eventually lead to the development of new drugs. Illnesses such as Alzheimers disease and even some cancers are the result of protein folding that has gone awry. Since proteins in the body perform different functions according to their shape, the folding process is considered a very important area of study.
Everett Lipman, a new assistant professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently co-authored an article in the journal Science, describing an innovative study of how to "see" proteins as they fold, the result of experiments performed with co-workers at the National Institutes of Health.
The machinery of life arises from interactions between protein molecules, whose functions depend on the three-dimensional shapes into which they fold, said Lipman. Although proteins are composed of just 20 different building blocks (the amino acids), the process by which a given sequence of these components adopts its unique structure is complex and poorly understood. Folding proteins are too small to view with a microscope, so the researchers used a method called Forster Resonance Energy Transfer, or FRET, to study them. Using a microfabricated silicon device and a microfluidic mixing technique, they were able to observe single protein molecules at various times after folding was triggered.
Gail Gallessich | EurekAlert!
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