The entire alphabet — from N to C
By Brad Stubenhaus
Mark Howarth, a molecular biologist at Oxford University, has curated a collection of beautiful protein structures, each corresponding to a letter in the Roman alphabet. Though it may be a while before this organic font reaches Microsoft Word, it should become a mainstay of introductory slides on PowerPoint presentations at molecular biology conferences, eliciting nerdy delight from all. The Scrooges of the protein structure world may attempt to suppress their smiles, but even the most caffeinated among them will not be able to remain purely focused on the topics being introduced. This is fun stuff.
Given the staggering amount of lab work that goes into the establishment of a single protein structure, this alphabet probably arose from more human toil than was required for the establishment of written language itself, and Howarth is quick to point out that the project rests on the shoulders of scientists all over the world. That there were enough structures to choose from and match to the 26 letters (and they’re very good matches) is a testament to the extraordinary amount of progress being made in the field.
Kindergarten teachers may find the material a bit challenging for their students now learning the alphabet (“C” is for ribonuclease inhibitor), but Howarth has made an admirable effort on his lab’s website to educate nonscientists of all ages. The outreach section is geared toward all intellectually curious people, and the protein alphabet makes it immediately inviting. Well done.
Brad Stubenhaus earned his M.S. in cell biology from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His research background is in planarian pigment cell biology and brain organoids. He lives in Baltimore, Md., where he is a fundraiser for the ASPCA.