Friday, February 10, 2012

OBJECT #2: Twisty toys

    I picked up these twisty toys at a yard sale a few years ago.  Since they weren’t brand new, they didn’t have a tag on them giving their official name.  I few years later I saw the smooth one in a store labeled as “Twisty Tangle.”  The smaller ones with square links make little clicky noises as you manipulate them.  I don’t know how the inventors imagined the purchasers using them.  I suppose just a high-tech way to twiddle your thumbs?  But I’ve found the perfect career for them-- as “protein folding” demonstrators!  Whenever I teach a science unit that touches upon biochemistry, I go out of my way to talk about protein folding-- a topic that everyone should know about but few people do. 

    I remember way back when my oldest children were little and I had not started homeschooling yet (and therefore I was still a complete dummy!) that I met a graduate student here at Penn State who tried to explain to me what he was researching.  I remember him using the term “protein folding.”  I don’t remember much else about the conversation, undoubtedly because I didn’t have any way for my brain to file the information.  I didn’t know enough about the structure of proteins to see how or why they could fold.  Now I know that the amino acid “beads” that make up the protein chain have physical and electrical properties that make them “like” or “dislike” water and certain other amino acids.   These “likes” and “dislikes” make the protein warp and twist until all the aminos are happy with their position.  The result is that each protein has a unique (weird) shape.  The shape is what will determine that protein’s job. 

    Much of biochemistry operates on the “lock and key” principle, where certain proteins fit perfectly into other protein formations, like a key fits into a lock.  When the protein key slides into the protein lock, the chemical job gets done.  Rarely, a “mimic” protein will be close enough in shape to another protein to be able (or almost able) to mimic its job.  For example, the antibody protein that has the necessary shape for attacking strep bacteria also happens to be the right fit to attack heart cells.  The little antibodies run around attacking anything that matches their shape.  They don’t know about bacteria and heart cells- -only shapes.  That’s why when you come down with strep the doctors won’t let you fight it off naturally.  The necessary antibodies will attack not only the bacteria but your heart tissue as well, causing what we call “rheumatic fever.”

    It’s very hard to explain how protein twist and fold creating weird 3D shapes.  These toys are a huge help. Of course, they can’t be posed to show any real protein formations, but they give a pretty good idea of the concept involved.

    Many diseases are caused by incorrect protein folding.  For this reason, protein folding is on the forefront of medical research.  Computer programmers have teamed up with medical researchers to create databases of correct protein shapes.  It turns out, however, that figuring out the exact shape of a protein is very difficult and very time consuming.  Ironically, computers can’t do it alone.  It often takes human intuition to solve the puzzle.   Then some programmers came up with a brilliant idea-- why not tap into one of the modern world’s greatest resources-- bored, computer-savvy teenagers!  If a computer game could be designed where “winning the game” meant getting a protein folded correctly, perhaps thousands, or even millions of young people would donate some of their time to help the protein database.  They did create the game, and you can play it at:  Another website lest you donate your computer’s “down time” to protein folding:

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