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Protein Science


Definition:  Protein science is the study of proteins, their components, how they are created, how they function and interact with their environment, their effects and uses within living organisms, and how this knowledge can be applied. Protein science is a cross-disciplinary nomenclature encompassing segments of scientific fields such as molecular biology, biochemistry, proteomics, genetics, bioengineering and nanotechnology. It will help us to diagnose and cure diseases, understand how the human brain functions, reduce the effects of aging, create new natural and synthetic compounds, and address other challenges relating to biology and the miracle of life. Protein science even reaches into space as we contemplate whether life exists on other planetary bodies and theorize as to how it evolved on Planet Earth.


The constellation of all proteins within a cell is called its proteome. A cell’s proteome changes constantly in response to tens of thousands of intra- and extracellular environmental signals as new proteins are assembled and unneeded ones are destroyed. Proteomics is the study of protein structure and activities. []


Proteins are long-chain molecules comprised of amino acids — more specifically, of peptides, which are shorter molecules containing two or more amino acids linked through a specific chemical reaction known as a peptide bond. When a peptide bond is formed between two amino acids, a single molecule of water is expelled in a process known as a condensation reaction. (See animation.) The distinction between proteins and peptides has essentially been one of size, but a suggested revision in definition would characterize a peptide as an amino acid molecule without structure.

Proteins are created within living cells under direction of genes, which are themselves sequences of amino acids. Through a complex process known as protein synthesis or protein biosynthesis, the genes within a cell instruct the cell to produce different proteins in response to internal and external stimuli. The proteins are used to perform various cellular functions. Some ways in which proteins may be utilized by cells are as structural elements, transport mechanisms, enzymes and antibodies.


Following protein synthesis, a protein undergoes further changes which include protein folding, a process by which the protein coils into a three-dimensional shape that enables it to perform its biological function, and, for some proteins, post-translational modification, whereby the protein may be chemically modified for purposes such as extending its range of possible functions.

Protein folding is an area of protein science that is receiving a great deal of attention. Several large protein folding projects are underway as researchers struggle to understand the intricacies of protein folding. One of the most significant of these protein folding projects is the Folding@home Distributed Computing Project being conducted by Stanford University’s Pande Lab. While protein folding simulations usually require the resources of a supercomputer, Pande Lab has enlisted thousands of internet volunteers using personal computers, each performing tiny pieces of work during their computers’ idle cycles — a concept known as grid computing. Results of this effort are being made available to researchers worldwide.


Protein science experienced an explosion following initiation of The Human Genome Project by the U.S. Department of Energy. This monumental 13-year undertaking to generate a high-quality reference DNA sequence for the human genome evolved into an effort that was multinational in scope. This initiative and the technology it introduced have spawned numerous additional genome sequencing projects.

DNA sequencing opens the door to amazing possibilities within protein science. Numerous early discoveries have led to new, more accurate, less invasive diagnostic procedures and advances in immunotherapy and cancer vaccines. Understanding how the human genome works to produce proteins and how proteins are utilized within the body will ultimately lead to highly-targeted vaccines and therapies as well as development of nanomachines (nanobots) that can be injected into the human body to fight disease and repair damage. Thanks to protein science, medicine will undergo a revolution in this century unlike any ever witnessed.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 9 May 2005, updated 28 February 2015.

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