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Structural View of Biology

The major molecules of protein synthesis, from DNA to RNA to ribosomes to folded proteins, are available in the PDB archive. Proteins are built in several steps in all living organisms. The blueprint for each protein is stored in the genome, encoded in strands of DNA. This information is transcribed into an RNA copy, which is then used to construct the protein chain. After the chain is synthesized, it may be modified with special chemical groups, chaperoned into its proper folded shape, and ultimately destroyed when it is not needed any longer.

The DNA genome must last the life of a cell, and must be passed on to future generations with no mistakes. Cells have many powerful mechanisms to protect their DNA, manage the storage of DNA in the small space of the cell, and repair damage to the DNA.

Scroll to a Molecule of the Month Feature in this subcategory:

  • DNA Ligase

    DNA Ligase

    Human cells (with a few unusual exceptions) each contain their own set of 46 long strands of DNA. All of our genetic information is encoded in these strands, with thousands of genes strung along their length. The ordering of genes, and the proximity of one next to the other, can be important for the proper usage of the information, so it is important that our cells protect their DNA from breakage. If one strand in the DNA breaks, it is not a disaster, but it can lead to problems when the DNA double helix is unwound during the processes of transcription and replication. Breakage of both strands, on the other hand, is far more serious. To protect us from these dangers, our cells use DNA ligases to glue together DNA strands that have been broken.

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    Discussed Structures
  • DNA Methyltransferases

    DNA Methyltransferases

    Your body is built of skin cells, nerve cells, bone cells, and many other different types of cells. These cells are different shapes and sizes, and each type of cell builds a characteristic collection of proteins that are needed for its function. However, every cell in your body contains the same genetic information, encoded in strands of DNA. How does each cell decide which genes to use and which ones to ignore?

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  • Nucleosome


    This is an auspicious time for molecular biology. The wave of knowledge that began in 1944 with Avery's discovery of DNA as the genetic material, which lead naturally to the atomic model of DNA proposed by Watson and Crick, and continued through detailed experiments to determine the genetic code, is now cresting with the release of the first draft of the human genome. This molecular text, written through billions of years of evolution, will provide untold insights into the molecular processes that underlie every aspect of our lives.

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  • RecA and Rad51

    RecA and Rad51

    Breakage of DNA is bad news, so cells have powerful methods to fix damaged DNA. One method trims the broken ends and then reconnects them back together. This is fast and easy, but has the disadvantage of possibly incorporating errors during the repair. Cells also have a more accurate method to repair breaks that relies on duplicate copies of the genome. This process is called homologous recombination, and rebuilds the damaged areas using an intact copy as a template.

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  • Restriction Enzymes

    Restriction Enzymes

    Bacteria are under constant attack by bacteriophages, like the bacteriophage phiX174 described in an earlier Molecule of the Month. To protect themselves, many types of bacteria have developed a method to chop up any foreign DNA, such as that of an attacking phage. These bacteria build an endonuclease--an enzyme that cuts DNA--which is allowed to circulate in the bacterial cytoplasm, waiting for phage DNA. The endonucleases are termed "restriction enzymes" because they restrict the infection of bacteriophages.

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  • Topoisomerases


    Each of your cells contains about 2 meters of DNA, all folded into the tiny space inside the nucleus, which is a million times smaller. As you might imagine, these long, thin strands can get tangled very easily in the busy environment of the nucleus. To make things even more complicated, DNA is a double helix, which must be unwound to access the genetic information. If you have ever tried to unravel the individual fibers in a piece of rope, you will understand the knotty problems that this can cause. To help with these problems, your cells build several different topoisomerase enzymes that untangle and relax DNA strands.

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  • Transposase


    In the 1940's, Barbara McClintock discovered that the genome is a dynamic, changing place. She was studying maize, and she found that the beautiful mosaic colors of the kernels did not follow typical laws of inheritance. When she looked inside the cells, she found that the chromosomes changed shape, swapping pieces from one chromosome to the next. From this work, she found that the color changes were caused by the removal of a particular piece of DNA from the general area of the gene that caused the color, allowing the gene to be expressed and create pigments. She called this process transposition, where a piece of DNA is cut out of one place and pasted into another location.

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    Discussed Structures

Please see our usage polices for citation and reprint information. Copies of the illustrations used in these features are available for download as high resolution TIFF images. Please note that the structures used to illustrate each installment are chosen at the discretion of the authors; the features are not intended to represent a historical record. The process behind the creation of this feature is described by the author.