At the Herbert Tabor Research Award Lecture at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology meeting, in his talk “Chaperonin-mediated protein folding”, Prof. Arthur Horwich of Yale University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute opened by regaling us with the story of the famous experiment by Christian Anfinsen. The hypothesis was that all of the information required for a protein to fold into its three-dimensional shape was encoded in the amino acid sequence. He tested the hypothesis by treating the protein with urea and beta-mercaptoethanol (BME), chemicals that cause the protein to unfold, then he slowly removed the urea and BME, and amazingly he recovered the protein’s activity, meaning that it had folded correctly. This is amazing because the number of possible arrangements the protein could assume is huge, and yet it was able to find the right one. The experiment is elegant, and it won a Nobel Prize in 1972.
It’s a common story to use when beginning a talk on protein folding, but I was more interested by what he said next: “I didn’t hear about this experiment until I was a freshman at Brown”, as if he had expected to have heard about it earlier.
I think this story illustrates the gulf between what scientists expect the public to know and what the public actually knows. I went to an excellent high school, but my ninth-grade biology class didn’t really discuss biochemistry at a molecular level, and for pretty fair reasons: we didn’t have chemistry until tenth grade, so I’m not sure what would have been gained by talking about the fact that proteins are made of amino acids and the protein folding problem. In Advanced Placement Chemistry in eleventh grade, we spent a good deal of time on intermolecular interactions, so we probably could have applied those principles to proteins, but it was a chemistry class, not a biochemistry class, so we didn’t. So even as a definitely more-educated-in-chemistry-than-average student, I, as Prof. Horwich, entered college having never heard of the Anfinsen experiment, or indeed of protein folding. We scientists would do well to remember that when trying to communicate with the public.