Protein Portraits

         The aesthetic alchemy of life

Juxtaposing art and science

This week we will share our tentative selections of subjects for our Protein Portrait projects.  Be prepared to talk a lot.

The mental exploration for each of us may be a three-step process that goes something like this:

  1. Find what appeals to me.
  2. Find some related proteins in the databank.
  3. Juxtapose artistic appeal and the scientific understanding in a Protein Portraits project.

The art of venom

Here’s a recent example of how I have run through steps 1, 2 and 3.

First, I outlined an area of inquiry that sparks my curiosity and stimulates my sense of artistry.  Like many people, I am curious about animals that defend themselves using venoms, poisons and toxins.  Most of us have had a personal experience with insect venoms (stinging ants, wasps and bees) or spider venoms (black widows, brown recluses).  Maybe you are beguiled by the deadly beauty of poison dart frogs.  In my own case, I used to keep a pet rattlesnake in my dorm room.  The contrasting colors and angular skin pattern of the diamondback rattlesnake inspire my artistry.

Second, I investigated the scientific literature to learn how protein molecules are associated with the action in a typical encounter between “the stinger” and “the stung”.  The active ingredients of many venoms often include one or more kinds of protein molecules, often enzymes that induce pain and inflammation by tearing apart the victim’s membranes and molecules, or in other cases sticky proteins that bind to the victim’s important molecules, creating havoc.  The scientific literature is at our fingertips.  We can search the Protein Databank using just about any search term.  When I searched the term “rattlesnake venom”, I was instantly offered 23 protein structures to examine. One of the protein structures in this search is crotoxin B (2QOG), an enzyme (a “phospholipase”) that cleaves lipid molecules in the vicinity of a rattlesnake bite, disrupting membrane barriers and thereby causing pain and severe tissue damage.

Third, I am now in a position to juxtapose my scientific curiosity with my artistic inklings.  Take a look at the  two images reproduced below.  What does one image say about the other? Can I forge a work of art by joining my real-world impressions with my scientific understanding? Stay tuned.

diamond skin pattern

Diamondback skin pattern

Crotoxin B ribbon black bkg

Crototoxin B (2QOG)

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