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The Structures of Life

The Structures of Life

The need for an informed public has seldom been greater than it is right now. All over the world, different kinds of anti-scientific movements are attacking different aspects of science, from climate change and evolution to psychiatry and vaccines. Being able to resist the creeping influence of pseudoscience, quackery and general nonsense requires not only general knowledge of critical thinking tools. Also needed is a broad familiarity with the basic science that is under attack.

Learning the basics of biology is time well worth spent, as it provides the underpinnings for understanding why many different forms of pseudoscience when it comes to evolution and medicine are deeply mistaken. However, learning basic science should not just be a chore that you have to get through. It should be exciting! It should answer thought-provoking questions about nature and fill you with a sense of awe and wonder.

Why is the structure of proteins so vital for understanding their functions? What parts of your body are proteins involved in? What makes spider silk so strong? How can proteins from some jellyfish emit green light? What makes fireflies shine? What makes snake venom so dangerous? How do you study the structure of proteins? What are the major advantages and disadvantages with x-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance?

How long does it take to produce suitable crystals to use in the former method? How strong are the magnetic fields produced by the later method? How do you design new medications from scratch and translate those findings into the clinic? How are proteins involved in movement, the production of new protein, and various signalling pathways? What are the COX enzymes, how do they contribute to pain and how does pain medication target them?

The Structures of Life is a short book compiled by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. In just 66 pages, the book surveys the vital role that proteins play in our bodies and crucial scientific techniques to gain insight into protein structure, such as x-ray crystallography, nuclear magnetic resonance and computational tools. The book further explores the roles on proteins in muscle contraction, transcription, translation, photosynthesis and signal transduction.

The preface asks the reader to contemplate why structure is important and the first chapter explores how proteins are involved in a huge array of structures and functions, from skin, defense against invading pathogens, digest food, breathing and contracting muscles. In particular, it focuses on protein folding and how errors can lead to human diseases.

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The second chapter starts examining the scientific methods for probing the structure of proteins and focuses on x-ray crystallography. This method requires proteins to form crystals that are they examined by x-ray and the resulting diffraction will provide information to researchers about the structure.

The third chapter examines another crucial method in structural biology, namely nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), that can study not only structure but also flexibility and interaction. How do you know what a protein looks like? How it works in mechanistic detail? One method that can address those kinds of questions is NMR.

The fourth chapter provides a case study on how to go from the computer to the clinic in the rational design of pharmaceutical medications against disease with a special focus on HIV/AIDS. This virus and syndrome still has a massive toll on people around the world, with millions having died since it was first discovered.

The last chapter discuss how proteins work in a number of specific areas in humans and other organisms. They are not just structure and enzymes. Proteins are so much more.

The book can be read online or downloaded in PDF format. A cache of the online version can be found here and a cache of the PDF version can be found here.

For other items in this series, check out The New Genetics that deals with genetics and genomics as well as Inside the Cell that focuses on cell and molecular biology.


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