Stories tagged Protein

Jan
13
2011

Fried insect pupae: You have to admit, they look a little bit delicious, right?
Fried insect pupae: You have to admit, they look a little bit delicious, right?Courtesy Steven G. Johnson
If you're as big a fan of Science Buzz as I am, you might remember us saying that eating bugs can be a bad idea.

(I doubt you are as big Science Buzz fans as I am, though. Do you have a large, Party of Five-style poster of Liza, bryan kennedy, Artifactor, mdr, Thor, and Gene hanging in your room? Didn't think so.)

Anyway, despite what we might have said, it turns out that eating bugs may in fact be a good idea. But it's a good idea that's never gonna happen. (When I say "never," I mean "not in my lifetime, so as far as I'm concerned, 'never.'")

See, there are lots of folks who eat bugs (it's called entomophagy). And it's not all Fear Factor-style disgustingness—the insects are often cooked and flavored, and, you know, I'm sure they're fine. Like Corn Nuts.

But there are a lots more people who get their protein from eating larger animals, like cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys and stuff. And for a long time some people ate cows and pigs, and some people ate insects, and the world spun along just fine.

Then, not too long ago, people started to realize something: raising enough cows and pigs and things to feed billions of people has a tremendous negative impact on the environment. You have to feed each animal many times its weight in plants before it grows to full size, and all the while its pooping, peeing, and farting. And before you start complaining about how you're too young to read "pooping, peeing, and farting," let me say two things. 1) The alternative was to write "defecating, urinating, and flatulating," and you are too young to read that; and 2) animal poop, pee, and farts have a huge environmental impact.

When animal waste leaks into water sources, it can make them unhealthy to drink, and toxic to live in (if you're the sort of organism that lives in the water. And the various gases (like methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide) emitted by animals and their waste are a major source of global warming.

So there. It turns out that those of us who eat meat are straining the environment quite a bit.

But what about all those edible bugs? How do they fit in?

Well, a group of scientists from the Netherlands just published a report on that very thing. They compared the emissions of common meat animals to those of a variety of insects, and found that the world would probably be better off if we raised and ate bugs instead of cows and pigs.

See, insects are able to turn the food they eat into protein much more efficiently than cows and pigs, because insects' metabolisms don't constantly burn fuel to maintain a regular body temperature (like the metabolisms of cows, pigs and people do). In the end, for the amount of mass they build, insects produce less greenhouse gases than pigs, and way less than cows. The insects' production of ammonia (a source of water pollution) was also much less than cows and pigs. The long and the short of the research is that if we were to have farms raising delicious mealworms, house crickets, and locusts, we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

But I don't have high hopes for any of that; it's hard to imagine seeing insect-based food items on the shelves any time soon. Here's hoping though, right?

Apr
11
2009

Amazing nano factories known as proteins

Protein structure: three representations of the protein triose phosphate isomerase.
Protein structure: three representations of the protein triose phosphate isomerase.Courtesy Opabinia regalis
Understanding proteins and how they work is very useful. One type of protein called an enzyme is like a nano sized factory that can take apart molecules or build new molecules out of smaller parts.

Plant cellulose can be turned into ethanol fuel. Oil slicks could be digested into non-pollutants. Custom designed proteins will soon allow "living" factories that can manufacture almost anything we can imagine. Protein "hackers" are creating synthetic antibodies — proteins designed to bind tightly to specific targets, such as tumor cells, which can then be destroyed.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

To accomplish this goal, DARPA is investing in the development of new tools in diverse areas such as topology, optimization, the calculation of ab initio potentials, synthetic chemistry, and informatics leading to the ability to design proteins to order. At the conclusion of this program, researchers expect to be able to design a new complex protein, within 24 hours, that will inactivate a pathogenic organism. Protein Design Processes (DARPA)

The Protein Data Bank and Rosetta@Home

Proteins are made from a complex chain of amino acids. Several resources are helping to illuminate the complex relationship between the sequence of a chain of amino acids, the shape into which that chain will ultimately fold, and the function executed by the resulting protein.

The Protein Data Bank is an ever growing data bank of detailed schematic protein information. Another program that is helping to understand how proteins are shaped is the Rosetta@Home project which allows thousands of home computers to determine the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins being designed by researchers.

Try protein folding

"Would you like to play a new computer game and help scientists analyze protein chemistry -- at the same time? Here is a fun and interesting computer puzzle game that is designed to fold proteins -- the objective is to correctly fold a protein into the smallest possible space." Grrlscientist

Watch this video to learn how to "fold-it"

Apr
13
2007

Two years ago, everyone was talking about the work of paleontologist Mary Schweitzer: she noticed that thin slices of a 68-million-year-old fossil femur from a Tyrannosaurus rex looked like they still contained soft tissue. (See photos of the bone.) Using antibodies to the collagen protein, she showed that the bone still contained intact collagen molecules—the main component of cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.

Hello, dinos?: A new study shows that preserved collagen from a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex is similar to that of chickens. (Photo courtesy Danelle Sheree)
Hello, dinos?: A new study shows that preserved collagen from a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex is similar to that of chickens. (Photo courtesy Danelle Sheree)

She used antibodies to a type of collagen extracted from chickens. The fact that the antibodies stuck suggested that T. rex collagen is similar to that of birds. And when she compared the preserved soft tissue to that of modern animals, the closest match was an emu—a flightless bird.

To learn more about the collagen in the T. rex bones, Schweitzer worked with John Asara, a chemist at Harvard University, to analyze it using mass spectrometry.

The Economist describes the technique this way:

This technique identifies molecules (or fragments of molecules) from a combination of their weight and their electric charges. Knowing the weights of different sorts of atoms (and of groups of atoms that show up regularly in larger molecules, such as the 20 different amino acids from which proteins are assembled) it is usually possible to piece together fragments to form the profile of an entire protein.

When Asara compared the profile he'd created to proteins from living animals, the closest matches were to chickens and ostriches. (Schweitzer and Asara's study was published in the April 13, 2007, issue of the journal Science.)

Many paleontologists already believed, based on fossil bones, that birds are dinosaurs or their descendants. But this new paper provides even more evidence of the fact.

Buzz stories on the subject from last year:

Recent news articles: