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Biologists are approaching a new – and more natural - way of studying proteins

New technologies are emerging to study proteins in their natural environment. This advance will open the opportunity for an accurate understanding of how proteins operate in and are influenced by their working environment. New publication from DANDRITE Group Leader Chao Sun and former director Professor Poul Nissen.

Graphic from article: Diverse subcellular compartments in neurons and different assembly formats of protein complexes.
Group Leader Chao Sun Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Photo
Professor Poul Nissen AU Photo

Studying the distribution, structure, and function of proteins in cells is crucial for understanding various aspects of cellular function and for addressing deficits that may occur, and cause diseases.

Much of our current understanding of cellular proteins stems from techniques that extract these proteins from their natural cellular environment. However, this method leaves many questions unanswered – most importantly the question of how proteins are influenced by the environment they work in.

"Proteins are tiny molecular machines, and how they work often depends on the environment they function in, just like other biological structures do" explains Chao Sun.

In a commentary recently published in Materials Today Physics, Group Leader Chao Sun and, former DANDRITE director, Professor Poul Nissen (now Vice Dean of Aarhus University) dive into the emergence of a new area of study focused on understanding the detailed structure and organization of molecules within cells – in their natural habitat.

"The same protein may operate differently in different cellular environments, but with conventional purification and enrichment methods, we do not know exactly how,” Chao Sun states.

With emerging light and electron microscopy techniques, the ability to study the molecular architecture of cells now becomes a reality.

“A rapidly moving frontier called spatial biology is coming of age, where the composition and temporal changes of individual biological cells are being mapped out in space and time, e.g. in response to a signal or changes in the environment, Poul Nissen explains and adds:

“Molecular an structural biology are merging with cell biology - in the future we will see far more sophisticated and complex models of biological function based on molecular network mechanisms.”