Issue
Fall
2006
Volume
19
Issue
2
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MacCHESS
A Collision of Physics and Biology

Understanding the Fundamental Process of Life

Richard Cerione

Richard Cerione

Synchrotron-generated x-ray radiation has had a major impact on our understanding of many of the most fundamental processes of life. Among the earliest group of researchers to take advantage of synchrotron radiation in addressing biological questions was a community of scientists called structural biologists. These biologists use the diffraction of x-ray radiation from protein crystals to determine the three-dimensional shapes of proteins. This experimental approach, commonly referred to as x-ray crystallography, has proven to be extremely valuable, because by knowing the shape of a protein in three dimensions, it then becomes possible to understand how the protein functions. Given that proteins are responsible for virtually every activity required for the normal functions of cells (the basic building blocks of life), this is extremely valuable information. Perhaps even more important, however: by knowing the three-dimensional shape of a protein, researchers can better understand exactly what goes wrong when its shape or structure changes. Such changes, which occur because of a mutation in the gene that codes for the protein, often alter the normal cellular function of the protein and are responsible for a large array of pathological disorders and diseases.

Proteins and Protein Complexes

During the past 10 years, the application of synchrotron radiation to the solution of protein structure has undergone a steady and impressive evolution: from the determination of the three-dimensional structures of individual proteins to the more challenging structures of protein complexes (proteins typically function in cells by binding to and altering the activity of other proteins), to the even more formidable undertaking of solving the structures of large complexes consisting of many proteins. These ever expanding achievements in x-ray crystallography are providing answers to the most important questions in biology, including how the brain functions, how we develop from single cells to the nearly incomprehensible array of cells that comprise a human being, and why we age and eventually die. There is no other place where these remarkable accomplishments are more prominently on display than at the macromolecular crystallography resource at Cornell’s MacCHESS.

 

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