PROTEINS  What are proteins and why are they important?  Dave takes a spin with proteins to see how they move.
To Purchase NEWTON'S APPLE videos and other science stuff,
call 1-800-588-NEWTON

Getting Started

To begin the lesson, set a Koosh ball (available at a toy store) on a table. Blow on it lightly and ask the class to describe the effect of the moving air on the Koosh ball's strands. Then give it a quick, hard puff and ask, "How did the strands behave differently when hit by the stronger current of air? How was the overall shape of the Koosh ball affected?" Stick a small bit of clay on one of the strands. Ask students to describe how changes in the form of one of the strands affects the arrangement of the others.

Explain that the Koosh ball's movements resemble those of a protein molecule, though the two don't look like each other. In the case of proteins, external factors like water molecules, not air, can affect surface projections of the protein and change its overall shape. Ask the following questions: What are proteins? Why are they important to us? Why would altering a protein's shape be important?


Proteins run our show. Muscles, organs, hair, bone, and skin either contain or are made of proteins. They are a major component in all of our cells. Enzymes that run the chemical reactions in our bodies are proteins. Proteins help us move, send messages (hormones and nerve receptors), fight off disease (antibodies), and transport other molecules and atoms around our bodies.

A protein is a molecule that consists of a chain of amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids to choose from, and the genetic information in our DNA determines how they're put together. A single protein consists of hundreds of amino acids, all folding into a structure with a specific shape.

What job a protein does in the body is determined by its structure (its conformation) and the way it moves (its dynamics). Hemoglobin, for example, is an important red blood cell protein that delivers oxygen to tissues and hauls carbon dioxide to the lungs for removal. In the lungs, oxygen binds to the iron atoms inside a hemoglobin molecule and any attached carbon dioxide is released.

In the tissues, the molecules of oxygen are released and more carbon dioxide is picked up. As illustrated in the video segment, it is the motions of parts of the hemoglobin molecule that makes this binding and release action work.

Scientists can investigate these motions or dynamics as well as the protein's structure using a technique called NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy. The nuclei of some atoms are like little magnets; they align within a magnetic field. If disturbed by a very quick blast of radio waves, this alignment is disrupted and these little magnets gradually relax back into alignment with the field. Researchers can interpret this NMR relaxation to get very detailed information about molecular motion and how proteins do their many different tasks in the body.

1. A protein's structure and activity allow it to accomplish its function. How do you use your own shape and movement to accomplish tasks?

2. You need to eat protein to survive. What foods contain protein? Do you think you get enough protein in what you eat? How can you find out?

Student Activity
Build a small protein and alter it to form new proteins.


Scientists describe the structure of proteins several different ways, from the sequence of amino acids ­the basic building blocks of protein­ to how proteins interact. Some of the basic structures of proteins are recognizable; one is the alpha­helix, which looks like an open spiral staircase. Another is the beta­sheet, which resembles a picket fence. In this activity, you'll build a model of a protein with four helix units.

Materials (per group of four)

  • four 10" ­ 12" cardboard tubes (from plastic wrap or aluminum foil)
  • four 30" ­ long pieces of Velcro (with peel-off sticky back)
  • cotton balls
  • Ping-Pong or golf ball
  • 1. Each member of the group will make one helix: Hold one of the tubes vertically and wrap the Velcro strip around the tube in a spiral pattern. Attach the cotton balls to the Velcro an inch apart from each other. Can you see how this resembles a helix structure of a protein? What do the cotton balls represent?

    2. Position four tubes together so that the cotton balls of one tube touch the Velcro strip of another. They should be able to hold together this way. What happens if you combine yours with another group's?

    3. Now take the Ping­Pong or golf ball and try to get it into the middle of your four helices. What do you have to do to get it to fit inside? How is this similar to what a protein does to accommodate a smaller molecule? What kinds of molecules change their conformation like this to do their job?


    Why is it important for researchers to know the shapes of different proteins? How do you think they are able to alter a protein's shape?


    Brian Show Number: 1501


    Books and articles

    Borman, S. (1996, May 27)
    Scientists refine understanding of protein folding and design.
    Chemical and Engineering News, p. 29.

    Clore, G. & Gronenborn, A. (1993)
    NMR of proteins.
    Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

    McCammon, J. & Harvey, S. (1987)
    Dynamics of proteins and nucleic acids.
    England: Cambridge University Press.

    Schulz, G. & Schirmer, R. (1985)
    Principles of protein structure.
    New York: Springer­Verlag.

    Web sites

    Hemoglobin Allostery

    Hemoglobin and Cooperativity

    Protein Structure: A Beginner's Guide to Molecular Biology

    Try This:

    Design your own protein out of a building set, gumdrops and toothpicks, or a rope or thick string. What do you want your protein to do? How will its shape have to be altered to perform that function?

    Try This:

    Demonstrate NMR relaxation with a gyroscope. Set a gyroscope in motion. How does the motion resemble the motion of a protein nucleus inside an NMR? What happens to the gyroscope after it's been spinning for a while? What is causing it to do that? What causes a real protein nucleus to slow down like that?

    Try This:

    Vegetarian diets are often protein deficient. Why is that? Research vegetarian diets and find out which vegetarian foods can supply humans with an adequate amount of protein. Create a vegetarian menu for one day that would provide you with your daily protein requirements.

    NEWTON'S APPLE video cassettes and educational materials provide further information about this and other topics. Call 1-800-588-NEWTON.

    Copyright 1997,
    Twin Cities Public Television

    We encourage duplication for educational non-commercial use.Educational materials developed with the National Science Teachers Association.NEWTON'S Apple is a production of KTCA Saint Paul/Minneapolis.Made possible by a grant from 3M.

    This activity has been copied, with permission, from the AskERIC server to ours, to allow faster access from our Web site. We encourage you to explore the Newton's Apple site.

    Return to SE Michigan Math-Science Home Page
    To Reach Out! volunteer organization at the University of Michigan