What is a protein?? (P.S. science is for you)

This blog is all about proteins, but what even is a protein?

Think about how you would define “protein” for a moment. Feel free to comment and share your definition. Now that it’s in the open, throw it in the garbage. 

If you ask Google to “define protein,” this is what you will find:

Pro•tein /ˈprōˌtēn/ (noun): any of a class of nitrogenous organic compounds that consist of large molecules composed of one or more long chains of amino acids and are an essential part of all living organisms, especially as structural components of body tissues such as muscle, hair, collagen, etc., and as enzymes and antibodies.”

Now throw this in the garbage, too. You won’t need it.

If either of these quick exercises–writing your own definition or reading Oxford’s–made you unsure or uncomfortable, let me reassure you. You don’t need to know all of the fancy science words to learn something new here.

Now, let’s build a new definition of “protein.”

A protein is a very, very small machine.

Cartoon protein (hemoglobin) saying "I am a very, very small machine!"

That’s it, folks! You are now welcome to leave and explore the rest of the blog because you are fully equipped!

If you know that a protein is a machine, you can figure out everything else. Let me give you some examples:

Machines do a job.

Proteins can have lots of different kinds of jobs, but all of them have a job. A toaster’s job is to make toast from bread. Several proteins make a product from a beginning ingredient too.

Machines are made from parts.

Proteins are also made from parts. A protein part is called an amino acid. There are different kinds of protein parts that are able to do different kinds of jobs. A toaster has coils that heat the bread and a bread-shaped space to hold the bread (or if you prefer, pre-toast).

A machine is designed for its function.

The arrangement of a protein’s parts give it the ability to do its job. A toaster’s coils are on the inside where the bread goes. Have you ever seen a toaster with the coils on the outside? Or without a place to insert the bread? Of course not. Because any other arrangement of the parts would not make the toaster functional.

When a machine is broken, or just turned off, it doesn’t function right.

Proteins that are “broken” don’t work, or they do a job that they were not meant to do (hence, why they cause diseases). A toaster with a broken lever or dial won’t make toast so great.

Many proteins can be turned off and on. If they are turned off, they don’t work. If a toaster is not plugged in, it won’t work. Simple as that.

Machines have a purpose.

Machines don’t just do something for no reason. They were created to solve a problem in a wider context. Why did someone make a toaster? It wasn’t just to toast bread. It was because making toast is valuable to us in some way (toast is sustenance, an ingredient for a bigger recipe, a conveniently quick breakfast, etc.). Though the wider purpose may not be the most obvious at first, a protein’s job has one too, and all of those wider purposes contribute to the widest purpose: sustaining life.

What is a protein? A very, very small machine. Perhaps a very, very small toaster.

A cartoon of a toaster and a protein (hemoglobin) both saying, "we are the same!!"

Now that you know what a protein is, I hope you feel prepared to explore the protein world and meet some of the proteins introduced throughout this blog!

If not, I want to encourage you to be bold and explore anyway. Maybe previous (negative) experiences with science classes, teachers, or textbooks have turned you away from reading about science topics for fun. Maybe you did really badly at the science fair in middle school and decided science is not for you. Maybe someone, including yourself, has told you “science may just not be your thing,” or “you’re not quite smart enough to keep up in the sciences.” If that is you, thank you for visiting my blog. I want you to know that here, the science is not just for researching scientists. It is not just for doctors or engineers or teachers or science majors. Science is for everyone, and everyone includes you.

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