Spam, spam, baked beans, spam* – it’s all amino acids eventually
In an article published by Hubert Vickery in 1950 in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, we learn that the word “protein” was suggested in a letter from Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius to the Dutch chemist Gerhard Johan Mulder.** The letter was dated July 10,1838.
Now consider these two pictures:
The first picture is an n-gram view of the appearance of the word “protein” in books published in English until the year 2008, courtesy Google Ngram Viewer. The second picture is the trend for the word “protein” as a search term, using Google as a search engine. So, whether you consider the word “protein” appearing in books in the Google text corpora, or a global curiosity about the word from the web-savvy, interest in the word continues to rise 178 years after it first appeared. And based on information from PubMed, scientific research on proteins as determined by the number of publications, exceeds research on any other biological macromolecule, or even any specific disease. The reason for this became evident from Professor Lynne Regan’s cafe discussion on the complexities and nuances of proteins.
Proteins have unique three dimensional shapes. These shapes are a consequence of the way amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are strung together and the milieu in which they exist. The stringing together is not random, but is directed by the gene that holds the master instructions for how the amino acids should be strung together for that specific protein. Genes, which are fairly discrete sections along a length of DNA, direct what needs to be done to keep a body going based on a variety of signals internal and external to the body. For example, if you get a gash on your knee, the cells from your immune system kick into action, making the necessary proteins and other molecules to help your healing process – for the most part, when your skin is unbroken, those are not required, so the genes that dictate making them are simply sitting it out and keeping the DNA bench warm!
Using Lego blocks to deconstruct the staggeringly complex biological entities that are proteins, Professor Regan ingeniously demonstrated how every protein that we ingest is broken down to its component amino acids in the stomach and intestines. Later, the amino acids are reorganized into the proteins that the body needs, based on the aforementioned instruction from a gene. This brought up an important and often overlooked point in this age of trying to find the best supplement to enhance various aspects of ones body – ingested proteins are all broken down, without exception. Further, if you want your body to use the protein in its original form, the protein needs to be injected so that it escapes the vigilant gastrointestinal path. This is why some therapies are injected – this includes some hormone treatments (e.g. growth hormone and insulin, both of which are proteins). Vaccines, and some cancer treatments are also injected because vaccines are made up of proteins; and some cancer therapies involve antibodies to specific molecules – and antibodies are proteins.
We also learned about proteins outside the realm of nutrition and clinical use. Did you know that some laundry detergents contain proteins in the form of enzymes, to remove specific stains? And, if you keep a wool sweater soaking too long in one of those detergents, you might just end up with a messy tangle of wool – because wool is nothing but wavy keratin-rich animal hair, and hence susceptible to being broken down by the enzyme in the detergent!
Professor Regan was extremely patient and generous with her time, and answered a wide variety of questions from a room filled with a very engaged group of Tilde Cafe attendees. In summary, there were many important points about proteins that we learnt at this cafe discussion, not the least of which was the fact that ingested proteins are all first broken down before being used to make needed proteins; that proteins play incalculable roles – from structural to functional ones; and protein “treatments” for hair, nails or skin are really not doing anything when it comes to the protein fraction of the product – proteins are much too large to be able to simply cross your body’s protective layer. At best, they will form a film over it, because, no, keratin in creams or shampoos is not going to get incorporated into your body! At least not with currently available technology.
But don’t take my word for it – checkout the video of the afternoon at https://www.youtube.com/user/tildecafe
*A nod to Monty Python’s sketch
**This paper is freely available through the link provided here, and is an excellent read.