Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Moving beyond structural biology

One of the key ideas in biophysics is that structure determines property determines function. On the PHYS3170 blog one of the students, Alex (aka. ack!) had a profound observation about chapter 11 of Nelson. Here is my paraphrase/version/extension of her point.
Today both biology teaching and research is driven by a paradigm: first determine the biomolecular structure, then deduce the relevant properties of the structure, and then explain the function of the biomolecule.

However, historically this is NOT how biology has operated, and Nelson illustrates this nicely when considering the case of molecular ion pumps and the mitochondria. One starts with a knowledge of the biological function, e.g., energy production and distribution, and one then deduces what physical property the system must have (e.g., the ability to maintain a non-equilibrium concentration gradient of ions), and one then makes a hypothesis about what kind of structure is necessary to have this property (e.g., an ion pump embedded in the cell membrane wall).
In the 21st century biology is moving away from a preoccupation with molecular biology to systems biology. Since this involves emergent properties the actual details of biomolecular structures are less important than the collective properties that they have as they interact with one another.

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