Biological systems offer an enormous reservoir of ideas and inspiration for nanotechnology. Much of the functionality in biological systems is contained within proteins, and one of the central tenets of modern biochemistry is the structure-function relationship in proteins. The idea that the function (activity) of a protein is determined by its three-dimensional structure has been born out for many thousands of proteins, and led to a fundamental understanding of a wide range of protein based activities. However, in past five years there has been an increasing interest in unstructured proteins, and the possible roles they might play. We have recently discovered a class of proteins that appear to have large essentially entirely unstructured domains. The location of these proteins and the properties conferred by the unstructured domains suggest that these proteins have functions that depend directly on the lack of structure. One such function is mechanical: unstructured proteins form entropic springs that play a role in determining or maintaining cell shape. Other possible functions include modulating interactions between proteins or controlling the effective concentrations of macromolecules inside cells. Thus, unstructured proteins represent a new type of biological building block, that offers interesting technological opportunities when combined with other types of functional biomolecules.
Department of Physiology, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
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