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About Sickkids
About SickKids

July 5, 2013

The origami art of protein folding

By Nino Meese-Tamuri

protein folded

Origami - the ancient Japanese art of creating complex structures through intricate folding techniques – shares methods with nature’s art of folding protein chains inside our cells. Like origami, the secret of nature’s process lies in its small, slow and steady steps according to a new study led by Dr. Lewis Kay, senior scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and Professor in the departments of Molecular Genetics, Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Toronto. 

The folding of protein molecules to their unique three-dimensional shapes is key for their function, which in turn is critical for cell viability. The research team found that rather than attempting to fold large numbers of amino acid chains at once, nature prefers to have only one or two chains involved at any given time. The findings are published in the June 25 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“We were able to catch a glimpse of the folding process in action. Our team found that only a tiny portion – about the thickness of 100,000th of a human hair – forms the basic stepsize on the path that the protein takes to assume its shape,” said Kay who is also a Canada Research Chair in Proteomics, Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics.
While the process takes place at these smallest of scales, the implications can be huge. The folding process does not always succeed without a hitch and can lead to misfolding, which is often responsible for human disease. This issue may now be addressed according to Kay: “Understanding the molecular details of the folding process may be of use in the design of appropriate pharmaceuticals to prevent misfolding diseases.”