Massive Molecular Structures

There was a chemistry professor at The Scripps Research Institute when I worked as a writer there some 12 years ago who used to marvel at the “beautiful” structures of chemical compounds that could be found in nature — those natural products that he, as an organic chemist, would attempt to synthesize and derivatize in the search for better drugs to treat cancer and other disease.

Another writer may have found his swooning over large aromatic compounds to be quirky if not downright weird, but because of my background in biophysics, I understood exactly where this professor was coming from. The first time I saw the high resolution structure of the ribosome, I was knocked out of my socks. When I was in graduate school in the 90s, the ribosome was known to me primarily as a purple blob that looked like a sinister, faceless Barney because that was the image, stylized from an EM no doubt, which adorned the cover of one of my text books (Lewin’s Genes IV or V — I can no longer recall). Then suddenly there it was, the massive machine with all the ribbons revealed.

In the last couple years, I have been continually amazed at some of the massive and beautiful molecular structures people are solving these days. In the New and Notable Symposium on Sunday, there were a few great examples of such recent awe-inspiring structures.

One was presented by Hao Wu of Harvard (lab home page) — work I think she published a few years ago when she was at Weill Cornell Medical School. The protein is a member of the ominous-sounding death domain superfamily that is involved in innate immune inflammatory processes. She used it to build a “unified model of inflammasome assembly. I wish I had picture to share because it was stunning. A great talk and a remarkable structure.

Another example from the same symposium was work from Erhu Cao who described the structure of TRPV1, a massive tetrameric transmembrane protein that assembles to form membrane channels that mediate sensation to stimuli like heat, acid and certain spider toxins. Cao showed some nice videos of this massive complex in its trans-membrane channel form, opening and closing like the iris on a lens.

By way of full disclosure, I have written about TRPV1 before, when I was a press officer at the University of California, San Francisco where Cao’s mentor David Julius is a professor. See for instance this press release, which I wrote in 2011.

But aside from that one disclosure, I don’t think I need to apologize for swooning over beautiful hi-res molecular structures. One does not have to be an organic chemist to appreciate the art of nature on the nano scale!


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