Nature's Robots: A History of Proteins

Nature's Robots: A History of Proteins

Nature's Robots: A History of Proteins

Nature's Robots: A History of Proteins

Synopsis

Proteins are amazing molecules. They spark the chemical reactions that form the basis for life, transmit signals in the body, identify and kill foreign invaders, form the engines that make us move, record visual images. For every task in a living organism, there is a protein designed to carry it out.
Nature's Robots is an authoritative history of protein science, from the earliest research in the nineteenth century to the most recent findings today. Tanford and Reynolds, who themselves made major contributions to the golden age of protein science, have written a remarkably vivid account of this history. The authors begin with the research of Berzelius and Mulder into "albumins," the early name for proteins, and the range all the way up to the findings of James Watson and Francis Crick. It is a fascinating story, involving heroes from the past, working mostly alone or in small groups, usually with little support from formal research grants. They capture the growing excitement among scientists as the mysteries of protein structure and function--the core of all the mysteries of life--are revealed little by little. And they include vivid portraits of scientists at work--two researchers, stranded by fog in a Moscow airport, strike up a conversation that leads to a major discovery; a chemist working in a small lab, with little funding, on a problem no one else would tackle, proves that enzymes are proteins--and wins the Nobel Prize.
Written in clear and accessible prose, Nature's Robots will appeal to anyone interested in the peaks and valleys of scientific research.

Excerpt

In September 2000, about the time that the manuscript for this book was being completed, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the US National Institutes of Health, launched the largest explicit molecular project of all time, aiming to solve the three-dimensional structures of 10 000 proteins. The goal is to do this not for just any 10 000 proteins, but to select ones that would represent identifiable protein families, each family representing a group with similar physiological function and/or gene similarities—proteins expected to be sufficiently closely related so that knowledge of one structure can be expected to allow prediction of structures for other members of a family on the basis of much less information than rigorous atom-by-atom measurements. The project is known as the ‘structural genomics initiative’. The work is to be split among seven regionally based research groups. The cost to the institute over the first five years will be $150 000 000 (£100 000 000).

The launching of this project provides a fitting climax to our history of protein science, which takes us from the origins of protein research in the nineteenth century, when the chemical constitution of ‘protein’ was first studied and heatedly debated and when there was as yet no glimmer of the functional potential of substances in the ‘protein’ category, to the determination of the first structures of individual proteins at atomic resolution—when positions of individual atoms were first specified exactly and bonding between neighbouring atoms defined precisely. The numerical explosion of such detailed information from a handful to 10 000 proteins is something we could not have imagined, nor do we intend to dwell on it. Our objective is limited to history, the heroes of the past, who worked mostly alone or in small groups, usually with little support from formal research grants. How did we get from scratch to where we are? That is our question, rather than prediction of the future . . .

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