Protein Portraits

         The aesthetic alchemy of life

Welcome to Protein Portraits 2016

Hello and welcome to Protein Portraits, the Oregon State University Honors College course that adds paint brushes and plaster-of-paris to the toolkit for studying protein molecules.  We build protein molecules as we imagine them, depicting them as reflections of not only experimental science but of our living experience in the world.

Kandinsky, Black Increasing 1927

Schwarz Gesteigert (Black Increasing). 1927 Oil on canvas, by Wassily Kandinsky


The guiding question in our ten weeks together will be, “What is a protein?

But is this a valid question?  How might we answer it?

Relying as we do on our senses, we may turn the question into something along the lines of “What does a protein look like?” or “What does a protein feel like?”.  After all, our first answer to the question, “What is a tree?” would be to give our visual description of the trunk, limbs and leaves, or perhaps we might answer with our feeling and impression of the shade cast by a tree on a sunny day.

But how can we use our senses to answer “What is a protein?” when an individual protein molecule is too small to be seen by the naked eye?  Sure, scientists commonly sketch pictures of molecules, but aren’t the rules that are typically used to depict molecules nothing more than arbitrary choices, such as the convention that carbon atoms are painted black, oxygen atoms red, and so on?

If we turn the question into a bulkier “What does a big collection of protein look like?”, then we may as well be answering, “What does an egg look like?” or “What does a jellyfish look like?” since such objects and organisms are each a large collection of protein (mixed together with other molecules).

There are many reasons for wanting to depict a protein molecule. Art meets science each time you crack open a textbook or a journal article in order to take a look at the latest protein that has had its structure determined. Or maybe we are pecking around in the Protein Data Bank to catch up with an old friend of a protein who has had its structure refined to higher accuracy.  Oftentimes a new function has been ascribed to a protein, and in that case an artistic rendering of the molecule might be used to emphasize the newly discovered aspect of the protein’s function.  It is even more common to admit that for a given protein, very little is known, and so we doodle on paper or in our minds to organize our question marks and create hypotheses that hopefully guide us toward fruitful new experiments.  The guesswork is much like taking stabs at the missing words in a half-completed crossword puzzle.

In short, art meets science every single time we think about protein molecules.  We depend on art to make the invisible visible.

The students in our course will create their own protein portraits to tell us, “this is what a protein is according to me, the artist”.  That is the only assignment in our course.  Ten weeks.  Count them.  They go by quickly.

Fear not.  Let your creativity run the show.  In the mean time, here’s some inspiration left to us by one of the great masters of protein portraiture, Irving Geis, 1908-1997.

myo_thumbnail Myoglobin

©2000 Howard HughesMedical Institute

cytc_thumbnail Cytochrome c

©2000 Howard Hughes Medical Institute

tbsv_thumbnail Tomato bushy stunt virus

©2000 Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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