Hecht and the students in his lab study the relationship between biological processes on the molecular scale and processes at work on a larger magnitude. For example, he is studying how the errant folding of proteins in the brain can lead to Alzheimer's disease, and is involved in a search for compounds to thwart that process. In work that relates to the new paper, Hecht and his students also are interested in learning what processes drive the routine folding of proteins on a basic level -- as proteins need to fold in order to function -- and why certain key sequences have evolved to be central to existence. Proteins are the workhorses of organisms, produced from instructions encoded into cellular DNA. The identity of any given protein is dictated by a unique sequence of 20 chemicals known as amino acids. If the different amino acids can be viewed as letters of an alphabet, each protein sequence constitutes its own unique "sentence."
And, if a protein is 100 amino acids long (most proteins are even longer), there are an astronomically large number of possibilities of different protein sequences, Hecht said. At the heart of his team's research was to question how there are only about 100,000 different proteins produced in the human body, when there is a potential for so many more. They wondered, are these particular proteins somehow special? Or might others work equally well, even though evolution has not yet had a chance to sample them?
Hecht and his research group set about to create artificial proteins encoded by genetic sequences not seen in nature. They produced about 1 million amino acid sequences that were designed to fold into stable three-dimensional structures.
"What I believe is most intriguing about our work is that the information encoded in these artificial genes is completely novel -- it does not come
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