Researchers find the 'breaking point' of proteins

December 5, 2007
Researchers find the 'breaking point' of proteins
Research into spider silk is helping scientists understand the role of water in biological materials.

Scientists from Oxford University have discovered the watery secrets of what makes proteins unstable.

Their fundamental research into the ‘critical condition’ at which the biological function of proteins is destroyed could have a profound impact on many areas of science – including biology, materials science and medicine: In particular it could give fresh insights into diseases caused by proteins misfolding and how to mimic the properties of tissues such as cartilage and collagen.

The discovery comes from quantum mechanics simulations developed by Dr David Porter and Professor Fritz Vollrath of Oxford’s Department of Zoology. ‘The interaction of water with proteins is central to all biology, and the point at which water-protein interactions become unstable is arguably nature’s most important ‘critical condition’,’ said Dr David Porter. ‘We can use these simulations to examine the physics and chemistry of hydrogen bonding between water and amide groups in a specific protein. The predictions from our models can then be translated into real biological stress conditions – of temperature, mechanical load and chemistry – that will cause this protein to become unstable and stop functioning.’

The new research also sheds light on how the amount of water in a protein tissue affects its relative ‘softness’ and overall structural properties. Proteins with relatively little water will be stiff but tough – like a hard plastic – whereas a larger fraction of water (above 30 per cent) makes tissues such as elastin highly flexible and strong.

Dr Porter and Professor Vollrath originally created the simulations to try to understand how spiders ‘tease’ a normally stable protein solution into a solid silk thread using a combination of stress mechanisms; temperature, mechanical load and chemistry. ‘It soon became clear that our silk model could be applied to many other protein stability problems,’ said Professor Fritz Vollrath. ‘A key innovation is that our models can map how instability develops over a time period of anything from a few seconds to a hundred years. Understanding the role of water in biological materials will be very important as we try to create new materials with predictable properties.’

The innovative use of new ways to extract critical conditions from their quantum simulations could have many other important applications in materials science: They could be used to predict the conditions under which materials will melt or move between an ordered and a less ordered state. Professor Vollrath said: ‘Clearly we can learn much more from spider silk than how to make a tough material.’

Source: Oxford University

Explore further: Opinion: How tasty forest foods can help solve the global hunger crisis

Related Stories

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

Lettuce quality is improved by modifying its growing conditions

November 27, 2015

A researcher in the UPV/EHU'’s department of Plant Biology and Ecology has confirmed that it is possible to improve the nutraceutical quality of the lettuce by modifying its growing conditions but not at the expense of productivity. ...

Recommended for you

Test racetrack dipole magnet produces record 16 tesla field

November 30, 2015

A new world record has been broken by the CERN magnet group when their racetrack test magnet produced a 16.2 tesla (16.2T) peak field – nearly twice that produced by the current LHC dipoles and the highest ever for a dipole ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.