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The shapes of life

The Protein Structure Initiative (PSI), a national program aimed at determining the three-dimensional shapes of a wide range of proteins, has now determined more than 1,000 different structures. These structures will shed light on how proteins function in many life processes and could lead to targets for the development of new medicines.

The PSI is a 10-year, approximately $600 million project funded largely by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), part of the National Institutes of Health. The first half of this project--a pilot phase that started in 2000--has centered on developing new tools and processes that enable researchers to quickly, cheaply, and reliably determine the shapes of many proteins found in nature.

"One thousand protein structures is a significant milestone for the PSI, and it shows an impressive return on the investment in the technology and methods for rapid structure determination," said Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D., director of NIGMS. "These structures are interesting in their own right and provide the basis for modeling many important proteins."

Some of the newly determined structures are of proteins found in plants, mice, yeast, and bacteria, including the pathogenic types that cause pneumonia, anthrax, and tuberculosis.

The nine PSI pilot centers have transformed protein structure determination from a mostly manual process to a highly automated one. Robotic instruments rapidly clone, express, purify, crystallize, and analyze many proteins simultaneously, cutting the time it takes to determine a single protein structure from months to days. For example, a robotic arm drops protein solution into thousands of tiny wells for crystallization trials, and an imaging system quickly scans the wells looking for signs of crystal formation--key to capturing protein structures.

"At this large scale, it would be unthinkable to do all these steps by hand," said John Norvell, Ph.D., di
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Contact: Emily Carlson
carlsone@nigms.nih.gov
301-496-7301
NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences
10-Feb-2005


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