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Biophys J. 1992 Nov;63(5):1185-209.

Looking at proteins: representations, folding, packing, and design. Biophysical Society National Lecture, 1992.

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Department of Biochemistry, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27710.


Looking at proteins is an active process of interpretation and selection, emphasizing some features and deleting others. Multiple representations are needed, for such purposes as showing motions or conveying both the chain connectivity and the three-dimensional shape simultaneously. In studying and comparing protein structures, ideas are suggested about the determinants of tertiary structure and of folding (e.g., that Greek key beta barrels may fold up two strands at a time). The design and synthesis of new proteins "from scratch" provides a route toward the experimental testing of such ideas. It has also been a fruitful new perspective from which to look at structures, requiring such things as statistics on very narrowly defined structural categories and explicit attention to "negative design" criteria that actively block unwanted alternatives (e.g., reverse topology of a helix bundle, or edge-to-edge aggregation of beta sheets). Recently, the field of protein design has produced a rather unexpected general result: apparently we do indeed know enough to successfully design proteins that fold into approximately correct structures, but not enough to design unique, native-like structures. The degree of order varies considerably, but even the best designed material shows multiple conformations by NMR, more similar to a "molten globule" folding intermediate than to a well ordered native tertiary structure. In response to this conclusion, we are now working on systems that test useful questions with approximate structures (such as determining which factors most influence the choice of helix-bundle topology) and also analyzing how natural proteins achieve unique core conformations (e.g., for side chains on the interior side of a beta sheet, illustrated in the kinemages).

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