LifeLab and me: the beauty of molecules

LifeLab and me: the beauty of molecules

What does a molecule look like?

Biology helps us understand ourselves and the world around us. Living systems are dynamic and complex, and their behavior may be hard to predict without knowing the structure of individual parts. I’ve always been curious to know what ‘makes’ our bodies and what ‘causes’ us to respond to any situation the way we do. It is dazzling to know the chemistry among the various molecules comprising our bodies, and the possibility of observing these molecules that are too small to see with the naked eye is fascinating.

Just like in the British Transport Police slogan, “See It. Say It. Sorted”, biologists also have to “see” molecules, so that they can “say” and “sort” what they do. Often the shape of the molecule determines its function. And what a molecule does is important when we’re trying to understand human health and disease, or how certain organisms withstand extremely hot or cold temperatures, and much, much more!

Can art and science be friends?

For the last four years we have been running a project that introduces school children in Cambridgeshire to the protein structures available in PDBe, and encourages them to create artworks based on their favourite molecules. So far, participants in the PDB Art project have produced hundreds of artworks, including drawings, paintings, sculptures, pottery, and even fashion designs inspired by the molecules of life. We even include some of these in a yearly PDBe calendar so that anyone who is interested in protein structures can enjoy them.

Working on this project has shown me that you don’t have to be a scientist to find science interesting and inspiring. I really enjoyed working with the students, talking to them about molecules and seeing these beautiful structures through their eyes. I also love the fact that this is such an inclusive project - most of the students don’t know anything about proteins when they start but end up finding out more than they could have imagined. You just need to open your mind and let your imagination run wild!

Protein art comes to LifeLab

We’re very excited to bring some of the most popular artworks from the PDB Art project to the 2019 LifeLab events. My colleagues and I will be at Ely Cathedral on Saturday, 28th September, sharing some of our favourite protein structures with visitors, and even helping them fold their own proteins. To add a bit more colour to your day, we will also provide fancy protein colouring books for kids where they can see, colour and learn about some of these wonderful molecules.

Want to find out what a deadly virus looks like? Or see the proteins that help us grow up? Or discover the molecules involved in our human connection? Then join us at LifeLab and share our love of proteins!

Authored by:

Preeti Choudhary, Scientific Programmer, EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI)

Banner image (shaded orange): Haemoglobin is a protein that transports oxygen in our blood. The human haemoglobin is made up of four subunits, two identical 𝞪 subunits and two identical 𝝱 subunits. Each subunit binds to a haem group which contains an iron atom in the centre and is responsible for binding to an oxygen molecule (shown in red).
Banner image (top right): Protein-inspired artwork from the 2019 PDB Art Exhibition.

About Preeti:

I love deciphering nature's hidden codes, so when I am not working on biological research problems, I like to hike, walk through the fields, lie under the stars, simply enjoying being in nature. I also enjoy cooking and often tend to pamper my friends’ and familys’ taste buds with my cuisine whenever I get a chance.

As a kid, I used to love cycling (I still do!). Much to the discomfort of my parents, I often went 6-8 kilometers from home just to explore. This tendency to explore has stayed with me and is one of the main reasons for me to pursue research as my career.

Earlier this year, I completed my PhD in computational biology from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali, India. During my PhD, I studied enzymes - nature's tiny machines performing chemical reactions. I wanted to learn why some of them are promiscuous, meaning they operate on many different molecules, while others are specific, and only work on one kind of molecules. It was then I realised that as much as I love analysing biological data, developing software tools to investigate biological problems is fun too.

Our team, Protein Data Bank in Europe (PDBe) is part of a global collaboration called the Worldwide Protein Data Bank (wwPDB). Together we collate, maintain and provide access to the global repository of structures (shapes) of biological molecules, the Protein Data Bank (PDB). The PDB stores more than one hundred thousand of 3D molecular structures (and counting!). In fact, earlier this year, we celebrated the milestone of reaching 150,000 structures in PDB. Our database is a bit like the Wikipedia of molecules because anyone can search for a molecule they’re interested in and find out what it looks like and what has already been discovered about it.