Protein Alphabet: A Picture Is Worth One Letter


It’s back-to-school time. That means learning lots of new facts and figures. In science, terms tend to be several syllables, sometimes with a Latin word thrown into the mix. As a result, many are referred to by their acronyms, such as DNA—short for deoxyribonucleic acid. This makes them easier both to remember and to say.

Researcher Mark Howarth Exit icon of Oxford University, has taken this a step further. Searching through information stored in the NIGMS-funded Protein Data Bank Exit icon, he curated a 3-D protein alphabet. It’s a set of 26 protein crystal structures that look like they were fashioned from bits of rainbow-colored curly ribbon. This 3-D alphabet helps us see what different protein strands look like, and explains terms and concepts relating to protein structure and function.

Proteins are molecules that play important roles in virtually every activity in the body. They form hair and fingernails, carry oxygen in the blood, enable muscle movement and much more. Although proteins are made of long strands of small molecules called amino acids, they do not remain as a straight chain. Some proteins are composed of multiple amino acid strands that wind together in the completed protein. The strands twist, bend and fold into a specific shape, and the protein’s structure enables it to perform its task. For instance, the “Y” shape of antibodies helps these immune system proteins bind to foreign molecules such as bacteria or viruses while also drawing in other immune system molecules.

Other letters in this alphabet are part of a protein’s crystal structure that Howarth determined looked like capital letters, including the letters N I G M S, shown here with each letter’s general function:

RNA methyltransferase: The addition of a chemical compound (called a methyl group) to a strand of RNA in order to regulate its function.

Bacterial adhesion: The process that allows bacteria to attach to other cells and surfaces.

Protease inhibitor: A class of antiviral drugs widely used to treat HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

Protein synthesis: A process of creating protein molecules.

Nuclear import: The entry of a protein into the nucleus.

Howarth’s article in Nature offers the whole colorful protein crystal structure alphabet [PDF, 1.4MB]. You can print them out and use them to make eye-catching name tags or other labels.