Seeing the Invisible: 50 Years of Macromolecular Visualization

Introduction

Colored Pencil Drawing of Cu,Zn SuperOxide Dismutase (SOD) Ribbon

Colored Pencil Drawing of Cu,Zn SuperOxide Dismutase (SOD) Ribbon

While visualizing proteins over decades -- from physical brass models to ribbon drawings to computer graphics -- the Richardson lab at Duke University has helped build and shape a scientific community aiming to understand the molecular building blocks of life and of their associated medical applications. This exhibit explores Jane and Dave Richardsons' contributions in determining, representing, and evaluating the three-dimensional structures of big biological molecules.

The central themes of the exhibit revolve around development of the ubiquitous ribbon-drawing representation of protein structures, and around the Cu,Zn SuperOxide Dismutase (SOD) molecule, which was the "signature" enzyme of Duke Biochemistry after Irwin Fridovich discovered its biological function in the late 1960s. The Richardsons solved its crystal structure and drew its ribbon in the 1970s, and have continued a passion for understanding, improving, and communicating three-dimensional biomolecular structures ever since.

Curators at the opening event <br />
(Left) Patrick Charbonneau, David and Jane Richardson, Margaret Brown, Rebecca Williams (right)

Curators at the opening event
(Left) Patrick Charbonneau, David and Jane Richardson, Margaret Brown, Rebecca Williams (right)

CURATED BY David and Jane Richardson, Patrick Charbonneau, Rebecca Williams, Vincent Chen, Michael Daul, Janelle Hutchinson, and Margaret Brown

PROTEIN EXAMPLES

Staphylococcal nuclease

Staphylococcal nuclease

The first protein structure solved by the Richardsons. It is a widely used system to study protein folding.

Cu,Zn superoxide dismutase (SOD)

Cu,Zn superoxide dismutase (SOD)

The second protein structure solved by the Richardsons. Others in the Duke Biochemistry Department had determined its sequence and metal content and discovered its crucial antioxidant protective function, which opened up a whole new field of oxygen-radical biology.

Triose phosphate isomerase (TIM)

Triose phosphate isomerase (TIM)

The first example of an especially elegant and very widespread protein "fold". It is Jane's favorite ribbon drawing, and was Picture of The Day on Wikipedia 11/19/09.

Basic pancreatic trypsin inhibitor (BPTI)

Basic pancreatic trypsin inhibitor (BPTI)

A very small, stable protein. This simplicity makes it ideal for studying (un)folding and dynamics of proteins.

FAQ

I’M NOT A SCIENTIST, WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Proteins are the main functional workhorses inside every living organism, but are much smaller than a visible light wave, and thus cannot simply be seen. Representing them understandably involves a surprisingly strong input from art and analogies. In addition to being vital to life, the complex shape of proteins illuminates the molecular underpinnings of biology and evolution. On the practical side, it allows scientists to learn how functions of the body work, or sometimes don’t, and to design life-saving drugs.

ISN’T VISUALIZING A PROTEIN JUST TECHNICAL?
When we imagine research to understand proteins, perhaps we think only of science, technology and math. But this exhibit provides a foundation for grasping the important role of creativity and art in solving these problems.

WHAT CAN A NON-SCIENTIST LEARN IN THIS EXHIBITION?
Exploring this exhibit is an opportunity to experience the complex, elegant forms of proteins through the lens of the Richardson Lab, and in context of other work at Duke. As its main theme, the exhibit explores the historical development of ribbon drawings, their current uses, and their connections, in both directions, with art.

DO I NEED TO UNDERSTAND THE TECHNICAL IDEAS TO ENJOY THIS EXHIBIT?
No! A picture is worth a thousand technical words. One goal of this exhibit is for the viewer to be inspired by the beauty of science and to see the role creativity can and should play even in highly technical research.
However, if you want to dig deeper, check out the videos and more detailed stories about the Richardson Lab's recent work on fine details in protein and RNA structure and their MolProbity website to validate and improve molecular models.
The glossary explains some concepts and definitions that might help you as you explore the exhibit.