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Purdue chemists 'put the twist' on protein building block

in their characteristic spiral shapes, proteins undergo a complicated process of folding that is still poorly understood because state-of-the-art imaging techniques can only provide images of proteins after they have finished folding. Since this dynamic process is a fundamental part of life on the molecular scale, scientists are keen to examine it more closely.

"Ideally, we would like to watch a protein being 'born,' as it undergoes the intricate folding process that is needed to give it its final structure," Zwier said. "We simply can't do that yet on a molecule as large a protein, so we decided to examine tryptamine, a simpler molecule that also can fold in several different ways. Our hope is to learn something from it that can carry over to much larger molecules."

Tryptamine is a close cousin of several well-known substances, namely serotonin, which plays a role in mood regulation, and melatonin, often used to treat jet lag. With a few additions to its molecular structure, tryptamine can form the amino acid tryptophan, which is incorporated with other amino acids in long chains to form proteins. The character of tryptamine fascinated Zwier because it has within its structure the molecular equivalent of a series of hinges - chemical bonds that allow parts of the molecule to twist into seven different shapes. Key to making the molecule twist was adding a bit of energy that could push the hinge in a different direction, giving the molecule a different configuration.

"Roughly speaking, it is hinges like this that allow a protein molecule to fold," Zwier said. "Of course, proteins have many internal hinges and, therefore, millions of possible ways of twisting. Tryptamine only has a few, but even so, it has been difficult to know which of the seven possible shapes it would take if you excited it with a jolt of energy. So we tried to figure out precisely how much of a jolt was necessary to make it assume a particular shape."
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Contact: Chad Boutin
cboutin@purdue.edu
765-494-2081
Purdue University
25-Feb-2004


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