Fifty years after scientists first posed a question about protein folding, the search for answers has led to the creation of a full-fledged field of research that led to major advances in supercomputers, new materials and drug discovery, and shaped our understanding of the basic processes of life, including so-called “protein-folding diseases” such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and type II diabetes.
In a review article published in the Nov. 23, 2012 issue of the journal Science, Stony Brook University researchers reviewed the progress on a 50-year-old puzzle called the Protein Folding Problem. Ken Dill and Justin MacCallum of Stony Brook’s Louis and Beatrice Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology show how a community of scientific researchers rose to tackle a grand-challenge problem of very basic science that had no obvious payoff at the time.
“Protein folding is a quintessential basic science. There has been no specific commercial target, yet the collateral payoffs have been broad and deep,” the researchers said in their paper, The Protein Folding Problem, 50 Years On.
“We have learned that proteins fold rapidly because random thermal motions cause conformational changes leading energetically downhill toward the native structure, a principle that is captured in funnel-shaped energy landscapes. And thanks in part to the large Protein Data Bank of known structures, predicting protein structures is now far more successful than was thought possible in the early days. What began as three questions of basic science one half-century ago has now grown into the full-fledged research field of protein physical science.”