On a Mission for Protein Information
It’s probably just the human brain’s ability to connect dots & find patterns, but it can be interesting how many “unrelated” events and information bits accumulate in my head & eventually get mulled into an idea or theory. Take, for example, a recent biotech mixer, bits from an education leadership series & a past Nature article – each “event” has been meandering in my mind and now they are finding their way out as this blog post.
OK, now the explanation: At a recent local biotech event I heard about a company (KeraNetics) purifying keratin proteins & using them to develop therapeutic and research applications. The company & their research sounded very interesting & because a lot of it is aimed at aiding wounded soldiers, it also sounded directly beneficial. The talk was short, only about 20 minutes, so there wasn’t a lot of time for details or questions. I decided I’d venture forth through many of the bioscience databases and resources that I know and love, in order to learn more about keratin.
My quest was both fun and frustrating because of the nature of the beast – keratin is “well known” (i.e. it comes up in high school academic challenge competitions ‘a lot’, according to someone in the know), but is hard to work with (i.e. tough, insoluble, fibrous structural proteins) that is hard to find much general information on in your average protein database (because it is made of many different gene products, all referred to as “keratin”). I decided to begin my adventure at two of my favorite protein resources, PDB & SBKB, but I found no solved structures for keratin. Because of the way model organism databases are curated and organized, I often begin a protein search there, just to get some basic background, gene names, sequence information, etc. I (of course) found nothing other than a couple of GO terms in the Saccharomyces Genome Database (SGD), but I found hundreds of results in both Mouse Genome Informatics (MGI) (660 genomic features) and Rat Genome Database (RGD) (162 rat genes, 342 human genes). I also found gene names (Krt*), sequences and many summary annotations with references to diseases with links to OMIM. When I queried for “keratin”, in OMIM I got 180 hits, including 61 “clinical synopsises”, in UniProt returned 505 reviewed entries and 2,435 unreviewed entiries, in Entrez Protein 10,611 results and in PubMed 26,430 articles with 1,707 reviews. I got my curiosity about KeraNetics’ research sated by using a PubMed advanced search for Keratin in the abstract or title & the PI’s name as author (search = “(keratin[Title/Abstract]) AND Van Dyke[Author]“).
I ended up with a lot of information leads that I could have hunted through, but it was a fun process in which I learned a lot about keratin. This is where the education stuff comes in. I’ve been seeing a lot of studies go by talking about reforming education to be more investigation driven, and I can totally see how that can work. “Learning” through memorization & regurgitation is dry for everyone & rough for the “memory challenged”, like me. Having a reason or curiosity to explore, with a new nugget of data or understanding lurking around each corner, the information just seems to get in better & stay longer. (OT, but thought I’d mention a related site that I found today w/ some neat stuff: Mind/Shift-How we will learn.)
And I could have done the advanced PubMed search in the beginning, but what fun would that have been? Plus there is a lot that I learned about keratin from what I didn’t find, like that there wasn’t a plethora of PDB structures for keratin proteins. That brings me to the final dot in my mullings – an article that I came across today as I worked on my reading backlog: “Too many roads not taken“. If you have a subscription to Nature you can read it, but the main point is that researchers are still largely focusing on the same set of proteins that they have been for a long time, because these are the proteins for which there are research tools (antibodies, chemical inhibitors, etc). This same sort of philosophy is fueling the Protein Structure Initiative (PSI) efforts, as described here. Anyway, I found the article interesting & agree with the authors general suggestions. I would however extend it beyond these physical research tools & say that going forward researchers need more data analysis tools, and training on how to use them – but I would, wouldn’t I?
- Sierpinski P, Garrett J, Ma J, Apel P, Klorig D, Smith T, Koman LA, Atala A, & Van Dyke M (2008). The use of keratin biomaterials derived from human hair for the promotion of rapid regeneration of peripheral nerves. Biomaterials, 29 (1), 118-28 PMID: 17919720
- Edwards, A., Isserlin, R., Bader, G., Frye, S., Willson, T., & Yu, F. (2011). Too many roads not taken Nature, 470 (7333), 163-165 DOI: 10.1038/470163a