From Rosetta@home via Bloomberg View: “Protein Engineering May Be the Future of Science”

Rosetta@home

Rosetta@home

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Bloomberg View

March 27, 2018
Faye Flam

Some scientists think designing new proteins could become as significant as tweaking DNA.

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Let’s build a better sperm whale. Photograph: SSPL/Getty Images

Scientists are increasingly betting their time and effort that the way to control the world is through proteins. Proteins are what makes life animated. They take information encoded in DNA and turn it into intricate three-dimensional structures, many of which act as tiny machines. Proteins work to ferry oxygen through the bloodstream, extract energy from food, fire neurons, and attack invaders. One can think of DNA as working in the service of the proteins, carrying the information on how, when and in what quantities to make them.

Living things make thousands of different proteins, but soon there could be many more, as scientists are starting to learn to design new ones from scratch with specific purposes in mind. Some are looking to design new proteins for drugs and vaccines, while others are seeking cleaner catalysts for the chemical industry and new materials.

David Baker, director for the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, compares protein design to the advent of custom tool-making. At some point, proto-humans went beyond merely finding uses for pieces of wood, rock or bone, and started designing tools to suit specific needs — from screwdrivers to sports cars.

See the full article here.

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Rosetta@home needs your help to determine the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins in research that may ultimately lead to finding cures for some major human diseases. By running the Rosetta program on your computer while you don’t need it you will help us speed up and extend our research in ways we couldn’t possibly attempt without your help. You will also be helping our efforts at designing new proteins to fight diseases such as HIV, Malaria, Cancer, and Alzheimer’s (See our Disease Related Research for more information). Please join us in our efforts! Rosetta@home is not for profit.

About Rosetta

One of the major goals of Rosetta is to predict the shapes that proteins fold up into in nature. Proteins are linear polymer molecules made up of amino acid monomers and are often refered to as “chains.” Amino acids can be considered as the “links” in a protein “chain”. Here is a simple analogy. When considering a metal chain, it can have many different shapes depending on the forces exerted upon it. For example, if you pull its ends, the chain will extend to a straight line and if you drop it on the floor, it will take on a unique shape. Unlike metal chains that are made of identical links, proteins are made of 20 different amino acids that each have their own unique properties (different shapes, and attractive and repulsive forces, for example), and in combination, the amino acids exert forces on the chain to make it take on a specific shape, which we call a “fold.” The order in which the amino acids are linked determines the protein’s fold. There are many kinds of proteins that vary in the number and order of their amino acids.

To predict the shape that a particular protein adopts in nature, what we are really trying to do is find the fold with the lowest energy. The energy is determined by a number of factors. For example, some amino acids are attracted to each other so when they are close in space, their interaction provides a favorable contribution to the energy. Rosetta’s strategy for finding low energy shapes looks like this:

Start with a fully unfolded chain (like a metal chain with its ends pulled).
Move a part of the chain to create a new shape.
Calculate the energy of the new shape.
Accept or reject the move depending on the change in energy.
Repeat 2 through 4 until every part of the chain has been moved a lot of times.

We call this a trajectory. The end result of a trajectory is a predicted structure. Rosetta keeps track of the lowest energy shape found in each trajectory. Each trajectory is unique, because the attempted moves are determined by a random number. They do not always find the same low energy shape because there are so many possibilities.

A trajectory may consist of two stages. The first stage uses a simplified representation of amino acids which allows us to try many different possible shapes rapidly. This stage is regarded as a low resolution search and on the screen saver you will see the protein chain jumping around a lot. In the second stage, Rosetta uses a full representation of amino acids. This stage is refered to as “relaxation.” Instead of moving around a lot, the protein tries smaller changes in an attempt to move the amino acids to their correct arrangment. This stage is regarded as a high resolution search and on the screen saver, you will see the protein chain jiggle around a little. Rosetta can do the first stage in a few minutes on a modern computer. The second stage takes longer because of the increased complexity when considering the full representation (all atoms) of amino acids.

Your computer typically generates 5-20 of these trajectories (per work unit) and then sends us back the lowest energy shape seen in each one. We then look at all of the low energy shapes, generated by all of your computers, to find the very lowest ones. This becomes our prediction for the fold of that protein.

To join this project, download and install the BOINC software on which it runs. Then attach to the project. While you are at BOINC, look at some of the other projects to see what else might be of interest to you.

U Washington Dr. David Baker

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