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Science Education: Structural Biology

Protein structuresUnderstanding the shapes of biological molecules to learn more about how they function and interact—that's structural biology. Studies in structural biology focus on questions like:

  • Why does a protein's shape matter?
  • How can misshapen molecules make us sick?
  • How can we visualize the structural details of large and complex molecules?

Follow the links below to learn more about structural biology, including recent discoveries, and read profiles of researchers working in this field.


Cover image of The Structures of LifeThe Structures of Life
Reveals how structural biology provides insight into health and disease and is useful in developing new medications.

Cover image of Computing LifeComputing Structural Biology from Computing Life
Shows how combining chemistry and computers helps scientists understand and predict how proteins fold and interact and could lead to new medicines for protein-related disorders.

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Fact Sheets

Helices (red) and beta sheets (blue) make up this protein. Credit: RCSB Protein Data BankStructural Biology
Structural biology is a field of science focused on understanding the shapes of biological molecules. Learn about why and how scientists study these structures.

Crystal structure of a protein from Pseudomonas aeruginosaProtein Structure Initiative: Pilot Phase
The PSI started in 2000 to develop new methods for generating the structures of lots of protein molecules. Read about its accomplishments during the first 5 years.

Protein structuresProtein Structure Initiative: Production Phase
The second phase of the PSI started in 2005 and sought to further develop and improve high-throughput structure determination techniques. Read about its accomplishments.

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Articles on Research Advances

Jean Chin.Untangling a Trending Topic
NIGMSí Jean Chin answers questions about a new device that will speed studies on a proteinís structure, function, dynamics and potential clinical value.

Structural model of the Cascade surveillance machine. Credit: Ryan Jackson, Montana State University.A Crisper View of the CRISPR Gene-Editing Mechanism
Like blueprints, structural models of the system that bacteria use to identify invading viruses will help scientists understand how it assembles and how to adapt it as a research tool.

Dynein, a motor protein. Credit: David S. Goodsell, The Scripps Research Institute and the RCSB PDB.A Data Bank Built for Discovery
The PDB archive holds structural data for dynein, a motor protein, and more than 100,000 other molecules.

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Profiles: Meet a Scientist

George HightowerHIV on the Brain
Graduate student George Hightower researches genetic mutations that affect HIV's ability to infect the brain.

David BakerThe Family Business
Computational biologist David Baker custom designs computer software to predict the three-dimensional shapes of proteins.

Mavis Agbandje-McKennaViral Voyages
Structural biologist Mavis Agbandje-McKenna studies how viruses infect cells.

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Audio and Video

Movie showing a computer-generated model of the HIV capsid. Credit: Juan R. Perilla and the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Cool Video: HIV's Inner Shell
Scientists have determined the exact structure of the inner shell of HIV, which contains its genetic material. This finding may lead to new and more effective HIV antiretroviral drugs.

Animation showing the changes in the structure of a T7 virus as it infects an E. coli bacterium.Cool Video: How a Virus Infects
Watching how a T7 virus changes its structure to infect a cell could shed light on how other viruses infect as well as aid the design of new drugs.

Structure of a pair of linked CXCR4 molecules (blue and gold) bound by loop-shaped peptide inhibitors (red and magenta). Courtesy of Raymond C. Stevens, the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif.Modeling How HIV Latches on to Immune Cell Receptors
This model shows how HIV, in gray, might latch on to immune cell receptor molecules, allowing the virus to enter and infect the cell.

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Atom-by-atom structure of a bacterium ribosome. Credit: Arto Pulk, University of California, Berkeley. Cool Image: Making the Ribosome Move
Details gleaned from this atomic-resolution image of the protein-building ribosome bound to the molecule that controls its motion could lead to better antibiotics.

Interactive TimelineInteractive Timeline - 50 Years of Protein Structure Determination
A timeline of significant research advances in protein structure determination.

HIV structureCool Image: Exploring HIV
Structures related to HIV have helped paint this detailed picture of the virus and have led to some important classes of drugs to treat the infection.

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Quizzes and Puzzles

Proteins Professor Cartoon Test Your Science IQ! Game: Proteins
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The Structures of Life crosswordThe Structures of Life Crossword Puzzle | Accessible Version

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This page last reviewed on February 6, 2015