Protein Portraits 2016

First, here’s our 2016 announcement …

The centerpiece of our announcement is one of Dorothy Hodgkin’s portraits of the molecular structure of insulin, which she solved using the technique of x-ray crystallography.


We invited the whole campus to our show.  We asked everyone to vote by marking ballots for their favorite protein portraits in three categories:  Most artistic, Most scientific, and Best overall.

And now, here are our twelve protein portraits contestants …

1. A Happy Medium: Human Dopamine D3 receptor

Artist: Anne Lyons

Proteins bring a big smile to my face, especially the D3 receptor! Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward-motivated behavior. Low levels of dopamine activity are associated with Parkinson’s disease and the aging process. But high levels of activity are associated with schizophrenia and drug use.

D3 receptors in particular have increased expression after just one exposure to cocaine, which shows a physiological pathway to drug addiction. That’s why, when it comes to dopamine receptors, it’s better to find a happy medium!

Reference:  PDB ID 3PBL

Dopamine D3 receptor

Dopamine D3 receptor

The dopamine receptor doubling as a pencil holder. Why not?

The dopamine receptor doubling as a pencil holder. Why not?

2. Bioluminescence in Jellies:­ Aequorin

Artist: Emaan Khan

Jellyfish, or jellies, are beautiful animals with many amazing qualities, from their umbrella shaped bodies to their lack of a brain, bones, and a heart to their ability to sting with their tentacles. While all of these make jellyfish very interesting creatures, my favorite quality is their bioluminescence.

Cheesecloth and fabric stiffener were used to make the body and tentacles of this jellyfish and create the translucent effect many jellyfish have. The inside of this jellyfish is lit up by the protein aequorin, which emits light when it binds to Ca2+ .

Reference:  PDB ID 1SL8


The spineless jelly

IMG_0209 (1)

The luminescent aequorin protein of the jelly

3. Krazy Crochet: Keratin

Artist: Lyndi­Rae Petty

Keratin is an extremely important part of organismal structure and protection. Hair, bones, shells, skin, feathers, and beaks are some of the most common places where keratin can be found. I chose to use hair as the representation of keratin because of its value in society and also its dynamic properties.

One of those properties is that when hair becomes wet, the alpha helices of keratin unwind and becomes elongated. I used simple crochet techniques and wool to create my keratin protein portrait. If you pull each end of the protein it will uncoil and as soon as you let go it will recoil, which represents hair becoming wet.

Reference:  Linus Pauling’s original structure, published in 1951, depicted the alpha helix as left-handed.  It was later proven that the most common alpha helix in nature is right-handed.  With the help of a mirror, the two versions are portrayed below

Version 2





4. Gluten: Sticky Strings and Globby Things

Artist: Sara Kerr

As a Nutrition major I was intrigued by gluten because it has become such a hot topic in recent years. There are two main components of gluten: gliadin and glutenin. Glutenin is generally “stringy” and gliadin is generally “globular.” However, gluten is a very complex matrix and not much is known about certain aspects of its structure. As a result, my piece is abstract and meant to be representational.

The consistency of gluten and it’s sticky nature made it a good medium to work with for this piece. The blue color scheme is representative of hydration, and the detailing depicts the loops, trains, beta spirals, and alpha helices that make up the protein’s secondary and tertiary structures.

Reference:  The 3D shapes of glutenin and gliadin molecules have not been solved scientifically, probably because of the inherent malleability and shape-shifting nature of these proteins.  The educated guesswork of the artist therefore precedes and inspires the scientific detective work.


Gluten in water, a doughy blend of proteins


Detail, showing hypothetical windings of the protein chains

5. Poison Stars: Mutated Shiga-Like Toxin B-Subunit

Artist: Andy Tsai

Stars are something we find beautiful in the night sky, but they’re seldom considered to be associated with something deadly. However, the mutated shiga­like toxin’s B­-subunit could be considered more lethal than a ninja star. The characteristic shape of this protein stems from the five components that make up the subunits structure. The job of this protein is to act somewhat like the demolition man, altering the cell membrane to allow the A-­subunits to enter the cell and commit its lethal function. This comic illustrates the B-­subunits role as it attempts to use its sinister role for justice.

Reference: PDB ID 1C48

IMG_0235 (4)

Comic book cover page …

The B-subunits swept in to bind to the glycolipids!

… and then … The B-subunits swept in to bind to the glycolipids!

6. Reduced Inhibitions: GABA(A) Receptor

Artist: Reid Kinser

Gamma­Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human brain. When GABA binds to the GABA(A) receptor transmembrane protein, a channel is opened to allow chloride ions to flow into the neuron. The resulting hyperpolarization of the cell membrane induces the inhibitory effect on signal transduction.Agonists of the GABA(A) receptor (including ethanol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates) increase chloride migration across the membrane, producing relaxation and sedation. Antagonists produce the opposite effects ­­ leading to stimulation and convulsions ­­ by blocking the ion channel or preventing it from opening.This art aims to display the function, geometry, and context surrounding this important protein as well as its ligands that generate behavioral consequences.

Reference: PDB ID 4COF

Triple portrait of the GABA receptor

7. Piece of Cake: Insulin

Artist: Hannah Bessette

Our Daily diet includes sugar intake, especially when we decide to consumer delicious desserts such as chocolate cake. Insulin is a hormone in our body designed to regulate our blood sugar levels and remain healthy. Insulin is a crucial hormone to our body, and breakdowns in release can result in the disease diabetes.

I chose to make the dimer of insulin initially; it has a nice symmetry and simple structure for sculpting. However, insulin is present in our body primarily as a hexamer that arranges in a sort of circle. Together, the dimeric structure and icing on the cake form the insulin hexameter.

Reference: Insulin dimer: PDB ID 5BTS  Insulin hexamer: PDB ID 5CO9


Hexamer: The whole cake


Dimer detail

8. Crystal Blue Persuasion: ⍺-crystallin domain of chaperone protein HSPB1

Artist: Rochelle Glover

One of the major sensory organs we use to perceive art is the eye. Eyes are not only a vessel through which we observe works of art, but are often the focal point of the art itself. Crystallins are proteins found in the human eye that are responsible for maintaining the transparency of the eye. The glaze used to cover this ceramic piece essentially turns to liquid glass during the firing process. This results in a transparent, crystalline finish, much like that of the crystallins in our eyes.

Reference: PDB ID 2N3J

 IMG_0253 (1)  IMG_0197

9. Reading Blood: Hemoglobin

Artist: Vy Nguyen

Hemoglobin: it helps us breathe! It is a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body. Linus Pauling discovered the sickle cell form of hemoglobin and established that people with it had sickle cell disease. His research concerning sickle cell anemia inspired this project, which comprises of normal cell and sickle cell hemoglobin carved into a copy of the Pauling Catalogue and layered with images of Pauling himself. The border of the pages is stamped to portray the shape of the normal and sickle cell hemoglobin.

Reference PDB: Normal Hemoglobin: 2M6Z, Sickle Cell: 5E6E



10. Corralling Calcium Carbonate: Lithostathine

Artist: Blake Hakkila

Lithostathine is a protein that inhibits pancreatic stone formation by attaching to the surface of growing calcium carbonate crystals, preventing additional calcium carbonate from joining the crystal lattice. To do so, part of the lithostathine protein actually unwinds itself to bind to the pancreatic stone surface. Lithostathine is thus important scientifically in that it provides insight into the mechanisms for preventing calcification in the human body, as well as insight into how proteins dynamically change shape to carry out their functions.

In my case, the medium for my art lead to the art itself. I have always been drawn to the appearance of chalk art, and so I wanted to choose a protein that complemented the chalk medium. Chalk used to be made out of calcium carbonate, so lithostathine was a perfect fit in that it inhibits the formation of calcium carbonate crystals in the pancreas.

Reference: PDB: 1LIT


11.  Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor

Artist: Hannah You

Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor (AhR) is a cytosolic receptor that activates xenobiotic metabolism.   AhR activation influences development of tumorigenesis, inflammation, formation of DNA adducts, cell proliferation, and loss of cell-cell adhesion (Tsay, 2013). AhR is expressed in most tissues, especially in the lung. Lung cancer has been caused by exposure to cigarette smoke, environmental pollutants, forest fire and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

My artwork depicts a protein structure of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor and a forest fire. The smoke from the fire is a mixture of chemicals that is widespread in the environment. The combination of smoke and the AhR regulate the expression that contribute to lung cancer.

Reference: PDB: 4M4X

IMG_0182 (2)


12. Movement Related: Major Histocompatibility Complex-class I related molecule (MR1)

Artist: Swechya Banskota

The Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) comprise the variety of cell surface proteins that decorate the immune cells, specifically the ones we are born with. The MR1 protein is thought to be important in antigen capture and recognition. This class of protein is also thought to be important in the diversity of T-cells . I chose to represent this protein in two pieces of work–both very similar yet different. These two panels display the protein from different angle of view. The hint of movement in this set of artwork is to represent the dynamic and active process that this protein is a part of. I used two panels to portray my artwork, along with the translucent paper over watercolor approach, to show the protein’s role in the diversity of T-cells: I intended the two people on the sled (controlling where it goes) to portray the active role this protein play in the role of T-cells.

Reference: PDB: 4GUP

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