The twilight world between chemistry and life

Viruses live in a twilight zone, somewhere between life and its ingredients. My fifth structure of Christmas emerges from that zone to wreak havoc on cattle: the foot-and-mouth-disease virus.

Consider the virus: a beautifully crafted set of molecules perfectly arranged to do one thing, and one thing only: subvert life forms to make more of itself. But what is it? Is it ‘alive’, in the conventional sense?

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RuBisCO: the lazy, needy carbon fixer

The CO2-fixing RuBisCO, a respectable representative of life on Earth, is my fourth structure of Christmas.

If a Martian visited Earth and was asked to report back on the most important protein in our biosphere, quite possibly it would choose RuBisCO. As enzymes go it isn’t the biggest, but it is a very big deal. It is extremely common – every single plant and photosynthetic cyanobacterium is stuffed full of it – and it performs one of the most crucial reactions for all of life: “fixing” gaseous carbon dioxide into sugars and amino acids.

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Seeing the light: opsin

The second structure of Christmas is the membrane protein opsin, which allows us to perceive light.

Proteins that control the information going in and out of our cells are harder to crystallise than run-of-the-mill globular proteins, as they have both water-loving and fat-loving parts and are tricky to mass produce. Opsin, our second structure of Christmas, is one such molecule. It is situated on a special membrane in a specialised cell at the back of our eyes, and senses light.

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The shape of our tears: lysozyme

If there is one protein we can say we know inside and out, it is the humble lysozyme, which we carry in our tears. This is my first Structure of Christmas for 2016.

Nowadays, we can see the position of atoms as if we had vision millions of times sharper than human eyes allow. This is the gift of structural biology – the science of determining the 3D structures of molecules and correlating them with function. Structural biology gives us something more powerful than human vision, as the wavelength of ‘visible’ light is too long to resolve the position of atoms.

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GA4GH: What? Why? How?

In August 2016, I was offered the position of Chair of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH), and am delighted to accept. To give a little more background to the announcement going out today, and to provide some answers to personal questions, I’ve written a bit of Q&A.

In this post I answer the three questions I am most frequently asked about the GA4GH, namely: What on Earth is it? Why am I becoming Chair? And how on earth do I find the time for these things? What is the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health?

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Sharing clinical data: everyone wins

Patients who contribute their data to research are primarily motivated by a desire to help others with the same plight, through the development of better treatments or even a cure. Out of respect for these individuals, and to uphold the fundamental tenets of the scientific process, I’d like the clinical trials community to shift its default position on data sharing and reuse to align to data availability on publication, similar to the life science community. This will enable more robust, rigorous research, create new opportunities for discovery and build trust between patients and scientists.

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