Google's AlphaFold Sheds Light on Intrinsically Disordered Proteins

JJohn September 19, 2023 9:02 PM

Google's AI software, AlphaFold, has been instrumental in identifying the structures of intrinsically disordered proteins, which lack a set structure. These proteins, despite their disorder, play critical roles in functions like cell division.

The pivotal role of protein structure

Structure is crucial for most proteins. Their intricate three-dimensional shapes, full of folds and pockets, facilitate chemical reactions that would otherwise be impossible or bind to a specific chemical within a cell's complex environment. This importance of protein structure has led to an entire field dedicated to understanding what a protein looks like in its active, folded state.

Discovery of intrinsically disordered proteins

However, not all proteins fit this profile. Scientists have been uncovering more and more intrinsically disordered proteins, which don't have a set structure. Some parts of these proteins appear to flutter in the Brownian motion, yet these sections are vital to the protein's function. This discovery has spurred debate as to whether these proteins adopt a temporary structure for their function or if the disorder itself is critical.

Interacting disordered proteins form structures

Intriguingly, scientists have found instances where two intrinsically disordered proteins can induce specific structures in each other upon interaction. This discovery underscores the complex dynamics of proteins and provides new avenues for understanding their functions. What's even more fascinating is that Google's AlphaFold AI software played a crucial role in discovering these structures.

Initially, the study of intrinsically disordered proteins was dismissed as having little relevance. However, with time, scientists have started to recognize that these disordered states aren't experimental artifacts. Instead, they represent the actual behavior of the proteins and, in some instances, are essential to their function. This shifted perspective marked a significant conceptual breakthrough in the field.

In a noteworthy example, researchers in Hefei, China, decided to study a protein called protein 4.1G, which is essential for cell division and is intrinsically disordered. Through its interactions with another intrinsically disordered protein called NuMA, protein 4.1G plays a crucial role in cell division. This case further emphasizes the complexity and diversity of protein functions, regardless of their order or disorder.

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