Another Mystery Solved

26 December 2006 at 19:03 1 comment

I love research.

Well, I should probably be more specific. I love the process of tracking down pieces of information: the twists and turns, how a lucky glimpse of a bibliographic entry or the offhand mention of another researcher can lead you down a completely unexpected path to just the fact you were looking for. It doesn’t matter how trivial that fact is in the grand scheme. Merely finding it feels like a small miracle.

This year for Christmas, my sister Mars gave me a copy of The Secret of Scent, a book on the science of scent by biophysicist Luca Turin. He’s the eponymous Emperor of Scent in one of my favorite books.

I’ve spent most of today reading this book—time I should have spent working on any of a number of school assignments that are due shortly after I return home from vacation in January. I needed to read something entertaining, though. And after reading an entire book about Turin, I felt fairly confident that a book by him would be entertaining and enlightening. And so far, he hasn’t disappointed, even if I don’t always get the science he’s talking about. In my favorite passage thus far, he describes what he calls the “Law of Conservation of Worries”:

As genuine reasons for anxiety, like polio, TB and smoking; recede, [sic] they are replaced by phoney ones, so that the anxiety level is kept homeostatically constant. I can think of no process — save a major cataclysm such as a flu pandemic — that would reset this anxiety to a low level in the developed world. The phrase ‘studies have shown’ in a newspaper these days almost always prefaces a new worry to be added to the pile to make sure it does not shrink. (26)

Anyhow, at one point about midway through, Turin is talking about how crystallizing proteins lets scientists determine what the protein molecules look like, how they twist and turn and fold back on themselves in strange structures that confound my normal preference for symmetry. In a footnote, Turin provides the URL for the RCSB Protein Data Bank (An Information Portal to Biological Macromolecular Structures!), where you can see many of these molecules.

If, like me, you don’t have advanced training in organic chemistry, one of the best places to start is their Molecule of the Month page. Dr. David S. Goodsell of the Scripps Institute profiles provides a picture — often strangely beautiful — for each molecule along with a brief description of what it is and how it’s constructed. Featured molecules have ranged from the well-known (DNA) to the more obscure (nitrogenase —well, OK, obscure to me) and from the sinister (cholera toxin) to the sublime (luciferase). Goodsell’s descriptions have a matter-of-factness that’s both reassuring to non-scientists like me and oddly fitting since these molecules are, despite their exotic structures, the workhorses of the biochemical world. His entry on serum albumin opens, “Think about how convenient it is to be able to eat.”

Anyhow, the point of all this, was not to introduce you to a neat science site — although I’m certainly happy to do that. The point was that, thanks to RCSB and Dr. Goodsell, I’ve finally learned what ubiquitin is. Apparently, cells constantly build and discard proteins as they need them for various purposes. Once a cell is done with a protein, it tags the protein with ubiquitin so that it can be identified as obsolete and broken down.

This is not just cool insight into molecular and cell biology. Since ubiquitin signals that something is obsolete and should be discarded, it also lends some sort of metaphorical/semantic support to my idea that the biological term “de-ubiquitination” needs to be appropriated for general use (i.e., what needs to happen to over-hyped celebrities like, say Britney Spears).


Entry filed under: Science, Smells.

Behind Door #24: And to All a Good Night… Daily Reading Update

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mad Geniuses « omnivorous  |  13 August 2008 at 20:35

    […] lot of fun to hang out with. I’d always thought it would be a blast to have a drink with Luca Turin, the scientist who writes deliciously evocative perfume reviews and developed a new theory […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

December 2006
« Nov   Jan »

nablopomo randomizer

nablopomo didit



%d bloggers like this: