“When you get sick and go to the doctor,” says Dr. Aled Edwards of the University of Toronto, “the doctor knows, at best, about a third of what’s going on inside you at the molecular level.”
Dr. Edwards is referring to the fact that roughly two-thirds of human proteins remain a mystery to science, in terms of what they do and how they work. Since proteins drive every process in our bodies—and since most medications work by interacting with a particular protein—this represents a significant blind spot.
Now, however, the Structural Genomics Consortium, which Dr. Edwards directs, is helping to draw back the curtain on the hidden world of proteins. Instead of taking the traditional approach of focusing on a known protein and learning more about it, researchers with the consortium synthesize thousands at a time, using data from DNA sequencing. Then they examine the results with exotic technologies like x-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance to look for proteins with new and unfamiliar three-dimensional structures. These shapes hold vital clues about a protein’s function and about the way in which it interacts with potential drugs. If the preliminary examination of a particular structure suggests a key function related to human health, researchers then work out the shape of the “new” protein in detail.