When researchers become enamored of a particular protein and want to study it, one of the first things they do is figure out how to get their hands on a LOT of it. That way, they can put it in test tubes, add and subtract different chemicals and alter the conditions and environment (temperature, pH, etc.) to figure out what really makes the protein act the way it does.
It may seem reasonable to suggest that these researchers just go collect the protein from its natural source. After all, the organism that produces the protein must be pretty good at it, right?
Ok, so if a researcher is studying a human protein, they can come after you with a needle for regular plasma draws or have you pee in a cup and filter out the protein from your fluids… but what happens if they are studying a protein that you pretty much suck at making, that is made in a few different varieties depending on whether or not you’re healthy or sick, that isn’t found in your blood or urine? Would you want researchers to come after you to extract, for instance, GREB1, which is found in prostatic tissue and prostate cancer? Probably not…
But there is good news for you and your prostate: scientists have been making proteins in the lab for a long time! (Time out: if you need a little DNA/protein tutorial, go on back to my DNA 101 post). So what is the recipe for a protein?
1. Take the DNA sequence that codes your protein and put it into an organism that won’t care if you’re all up in its prostrate
2. Turn that organism into a protein factory, letting it churn out millions of copies of your protein
3. Isolate—filter—your protein out of all the other gunk
4. Viola! You now have gobs of your favorite protein to use to your heart’s content
Ok, so of course some of these steps are a little more complicated than just waving a magic science wand. In fact, I hear a stampede of grad students (my younger self included) at my door, ready to skewer me for compacting years of blood, sweat, and tears into a few flippant bullet points.
But the important technological advance here is to hijack a biological system in order to do your heavy lifting.
What are the types of critters scientists use as their workhorses? Usually bacteria and yeast; sometimes insect, plant, or mammalian cells that can live in culture. The key property is that these cells grow quickly and robustly and merrily make protein, even protein that it wouldn’t normally make from the extra gene that you put into it.
|And that, my dears, is how you make perfect protein every time! (how do you type a Julia Child voice?) apronstrings.com|
So, if this technology has been around for a long time and is the part of the Materials and Methods section in a scientific paper that gets glossed over (unless you’re one of those grad students trying to do the same thing), why am I going on and on about it?
Because a research group out of the University of California, San Diego, has figured out how to use algae—that green gunk that covers ponds and lakes and smells funny—to make a malaria protein.
Honestly, this in and of itself isn’t something I’d normally find inspiration in to write about, other than the fact that I love keeping up on malaria research.
The reason I found this study so interesting is the fact that in all my various E-mail subscriptions and Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, I kept reading about it! Sure, the fact that they used algae is kind of cool, but scientists are always trying to find the best organism to use to get the most protein they can. So why was it everywhere?
Marketing! That’s how! This study is a perfect case study of knowing how to make your story sexy. I don’t know if these researchers have a publicist or what, but seriously, it’s brilliant: use the algae to produce a protein that could potentially be a MALARIA VACCINE TARGET, and suddenly you’ve got an angle. Now, instead of a headline (that would never be written because it’s boring) reading “Researchers Add Another Organism to a Long List of Things That Can Make Protein in the Lab,” they get ones like “Biologists Produce Potential Malarial Vaccine from Algae." Much better.
I don’t want to trivialize the importance of this study, nor do I want to make it sound like they’re undeserving of the press. I personally think this is really freaking cool, based on the fact that I did my thesis project on malaria and on the fact that it’s a prime example of how scientists can make their work accessible to the general public. They do not say they have cured the disease or found a vaccine; instead, they have given their finding potential context and a reason for people to care.
And giving people a reason to care and instilling in them passion is, in my opinion, where science communication often falls flat.
So, kudos to Stephan Mayfield and his team for their success and for being an example of how you can do good science, do science well, and write about both for your fellow scientists and for the general public.