Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Maddening to Forget Your Origami

One of my Aha! moments in studying sub-cellular biology came when I learned that proteins, which are carefully-sequenced amino acids, rapidly fold into shapes more or less spontaneously. “More or less” because other factors are involved, among them the presence of water, salts, temperature, and so-called chaperons that help with the folding. The chaperones are yet other proteins; they also participate in the unfolding of proteins. What with such external factors present, a protein intended to be useful in cellular life because it has a certain (if sometimes very complex) shape, proteins may unfold or fail to fold properly. Then troubles begin. The same protein that delivers a service may turn toxic when still, or again, a strand.

Yesterday I mentioned a Wall Street Journal story on Mad-Cow disease—but I didn’t read it. Brigitte, who never passes a scientific story without close scrutiny, and recognizing a subject I ought to read about, flagged it for me. I read it this morning and discovered that origami-challenged proteins are at the core not only of Mad-Cow disease but also Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease—and Type II diabetes, for that matter. I am showing a strand (bad) and a fold (good) of the same chain of protein from Wikipedia (link).

Brigitte also tracks my own constantly folding ideas of the cosmic. Thus for motivation she annotated the WSJ illustration, similar to the one that I’m showing, with the words: “Bohm’s Universe?” This reference is to David Bohm, the physicist, who suggested that the visible cosmos is a tiny, unfolded part of the Great Universe, which is deeply implicated. Hence ours is a fallen world, the GU is the real one. As above, so below. In each case unfolding leads to madness.

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