Protein designers get a $45 million boost

David Baker and Neil King
University of Washington biochemists David Baker and Neil King show off molecular models of proteins at UW’s Institute for Protein Design. (UW IPD Photo / Ian Haydon)

The era of engineering proteins for medical applications just got a lot closer, thanks to a five-year, $45 million grant from The Audacious Project at TED to the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

The institute, headed by UW biochemist David Baker, is among eight recipients of Audacious grants announced today at the annual TED conference in Vancouver, B.C.

“We’re really thinking of this as a protein design revolution, parallel to the digital revolution at Bell Labs. … If you can design proteins exactly to order from first principles, you can solve a lot of problems that are facing humans today — primarily in medicine, but also in materials and energy,” Baker told GeekWire.

Among the potential products are a universal flu vaccinenon-addictive painkillers, smart proteins capable of identifying and treating cancer cells or the out-of-control cells that cause autoimmune disorders, potential treatments for neurodegenerative disorders and self-assembling proteins for solar cells or nanofabrication.

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Scientists design proteins that snap together

Protein assembly
This molecular visualization shows how proteins are assembled like building blocks. (UW Illustration)

Researchers have created molecular building blocks that can weave themselves into long threads of protein.

Well, maybe not all that long. Each protein-based building block measures only a nanometer in length, and the self-assembled filaments get about as long as 10,000 nanometers. It’d take more than 2,500 of those filaments, laid end to end, to amount to an inch in total length. Nevertheless, the feat described in this week’s issue of the journal Science demonstrates the power and beauty of protein design.

“Being able to create protein filaments from scratch — or de novo — will help us better understand the structure and mechanics of naturally occurring protein filaments and will also allow us to create entirely novel materials, unlike any found in nature,” senior study author David Baker of the University of Washington said today in a news release.

Baker is a biochemist at the UW School of Medicine and director of UW’s Institute for Protein Design, which has pioneered the protein-folding field for years.

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Scientists fine-tune the formula for finding life

Alien atmosphere
An artist’s conception shows the light of an alien star shining through a planet’s atmosphere. (NASA Goddard via YouTube)

Is the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere of an alien world the only sure-fire sign that life is present? Not necessarily: Scientists say the chemical signature of biological activity is likely to be more subtle, involving a mix of gases that might seem out of whack.

In a paper published today in Science Advances, researchers say future observatories such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope should look for the signature of atmospheric gases that would be in disequilibrium if it weren’t for biological processes.

The study’s lead author, Joshua Krissansen-Totton of the University of Washington, says looking for oxygen alone shouldn’t be the sole strategy in the search for life on extrasolar planets.

“This idea of looking for atmospheric oxygen as a biosignature has been around for a long time. And it’s a good strategy — it’s very hard to make much oxygen without life,” he said in a news release. “But we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. Even if life is common in the cosmos, we have no idea if it will be life that makes oxygen. The biochemistry of oxygen production is very complex and could be quite rare.”

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Chemistry Nobel honors super-cool micro-imaging

This year’s Nobel Prize for chemistry recognizes the invention of cryo-electron microscopy, a method for chilling down biomolecules to produce less jittery, more precise pictures of them.

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$12 million gift boosts UW chemistry

Larry Dalton
Larry Dalton is a UW professor emeritus. (

The University of Washington’s Department of Chemistry will be the beneficiary of a $12 million gift from an unusual source: one of its own professors. Most of the money committed by professor emeritus Larry Dalton and his wife, Nicole Boand, will go to establish the Dalton Postdoctoral Fellowship in Chemistry, the UW announced today.

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PBS’ ‘Nova’ gets into the Kickstarter spirit

David Pogue in "Hunting the Elements"
Samples of chemical elements are spread out on a periodic table for David Pogue, host of “Hunting the Elements.” Now Pogue and “Nova” are raising money for a sequel. (WGBH Photo / Cara Feinberg)

Kickstarter has given a boost to science projects ranging from satellites to “Bill Nye: Science Guy,” but now it’s opening a new frontier for crowdfunding: “Nova” documentaries for public TV.

Today marks the start of a 30-day “Make Science for All” campaign, pitched by the “Nova” team at WGBH and tech reporter David Pogue.

The objective is to raise at least $1 million for a two-hour broadcast special, “Beyond the Elements,” which Pogue would host. If the Kickstarter total reaches $2.25 million, that would fund a wider variety of multimedia works and make the show available for viewing at schools across the country.

“Beyond the Elements” would follow up on “Hunting the Elements,” an earlier program that was hosted by Pogue. The first film was based on Theodore Gray’s coffee-table book, “The Elements,” a colorful chronicle of all the elements on the periodic table.

The sequel would take the story a step further, showing how a limited set of atoms combine to form the tens of millions of substances that make up our world.

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Scientists find ways to pick a protein’s pockets

Folded protein
This graphic shows the structure of a computationally designed protein that incorporates sheet-like structures with pockets, known as beta sheets. The beta sheets are the wavy “noodles” in the diagram. The structure also incorporates curled-up molecular spirals. (UW Institute for Protein Design / AAAS)

Researchers at the University of Washington have cracked the code for producing molecular structures with tiny pockets – structures that are likely to expand the repertoire for custom-designed proteins.

The structures, technically known as beta sheets, are thought to have an effect on metabolic pathways and cell signaling. Knowing how to produce them synthetically in precise configurations could lead to new treatments for maladies such as AIDS, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

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Four superheavy elements get official names

Element 117 on periodic table
Element 117 was named tennessine in recognition of Tennessee’s contributions to its discovery. (ORNL Photo)

After months of review, the world’s authority on chemical names has approved the official labels for four extremely rare elements at the bottom of the periodic table.

This week’s decision from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC, will literally rewrite chemistry textbooks. Here are the names and symbols that chemists will have to keep in mind from now on. …

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Mirror molecules found in interstellar space

Image: Chiral molecules
The propylene oxide molecules were detected in a massive star-forming region known as Sagitttarius B2, which is close to the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy (noted as Sgr A* in this image). The white features in this composite image are bright radio sources. The background image is from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. (Credit: B. Saxton / NRAO / AUi / NSF / NRL / SDSS)

Researchers say they’ve found the first evidence of mirror-image molecules in interstellar space – a discovery that relates to the chemistry that gave rise to life here on Earth.

The molecules of propylene oxide were detected in a huge cloud known as Sagittarius B2 North, about 28,000 light-years from Earth, during a scan that used the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

Mirror-image molecules are notable because they come in left-handed or right-handed molecular orientations, like the molecules that serve as the building blocks for life on Earth. That “handedness” is known as chirality.

“This is the first molecule detected in interstellar space that has the property of chirality, making it a pioneering leap forward in our understanding of how prebiotic molecules are made in the universe and the effects they may have on the origins of life,” Brett McGuire, a chemist with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, said in a news release.

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Four new elements added to periodic table

Image: Element 117
A computer graphic shows how the collision of calcium ions and berkelium atoms produces atoms of Element 117. (Credit: University of California Television)

The scientific body in charge of chemistry’s periodic table has verified the discoveries of four elements – completing the seventh row of the century-old chart.

For now, the elements are known as ununtrium (Element 113), ununpentium (Element 115), ununseptium (Element 117) and ununoctium (Element 118). It’ll be up to the newly recognized discoverers to propose the officlal names. The numbers denote how many protons are in the element’s nucleus.

At least one of the elements was synthesized more than a decade ago, but it took years for the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC, to confirm the evidence.

“A particular difficulty in establishing these new elements is that they decay into hitherto unknown isotopes of slightly lighter elements that also need to be unequivocally identified,” Paul Karol, a Carnegie Mellon University chemist who chairs the panel in charge of sorting out the discovery claims, said in IUPAC’s Dec. 30 announcement.

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