Structural biology laughs in the face of doom

#SciDoom FoS is having its first ever theme week, asking the question “are we doomed?”… as a new member of the FoS community I thought I’d toss my two pennies-worth of scattered thoughts in, as a quick introduction to me, if nothing else. 

So, are we doomed? By the way, I hope everyone else reading this is also saying doomed in a really deep and threatening voice in their head. 
There are a lot of different ways to look at this question, and over the past few weeks I’ve been considering them all. Ultimately, as individuals we are all doomed to die, so in one way, we are certainly all doomed. But what about as a species? We could be doomed by our treatment of the planet, by our eternal battle with microbes, the bacteria and viruses that we cannot outsmart, by cancers created by genetic mutations within ourselves, or by a great big asteroid bumping into us in space. 
There are so many factors that I couldn’t decide which imminent doom to analyse, so instead I decided to think about it as a structural biologist, which is what I’m going to be when I grow up. As a structural biologist, my personal instinct is that we’re not doomed. This is because every time I look at a molecular structure I’m struck by how incredible life is. People say that looking out into the universe can make you feel small and insignificant, well if that’s true then looking inwards to your microscopic molecular make-up can make you feel big, complex, impressive, and really flipping awesome. 
An example:  Move your finger. 
Right, I can’t even list all the protein molecules that just enabled you to do that, there are thousands of them. They’re involved in transmitting the message from your brain to your hand, in contracting the muscles, in providing the energy to do all those things, and in generally keeping you running well enough to be able to move your finger in the first place. And all of them are built from just 20 different amino acids, according to specifications written in just 4 bases in your DNA. That. Is. Phenomenal. And that’s just the beginning. 
The best part is not only how mind-blowingly awesome (and beautiful) molecular structures are, but the fact that we know what they look like. We’ve figured out how to look at them, which is in itself something of a challenge. We’ve found ways to investigate and start to understand how they work. And then we’ve studied what happens when they stop working, and how we can try to use drugs to fix those problems. We haven’t solved everything, not by a very long way, but we know so much, and everything we know just reinforces how incredible our bodies are.  
The reason I write is to share my wonder and excitement at the molecular world, and to invite as many people as possible to join in it. Ultimately, and perhaps I am just a shameless optimist, I can’t bring myself to believe that a species as wonderful as we are can be doomed…. although do watch out for asteroids, and of course the eventual death of the sun. When that happens, we are indeed doomed. But you won’t be around to see it, so the blind optimism stands for now.

2 thoughts on “Structural biology laughs in the face of doom

  1. True, for example the HIV virus is one of the most incredibly, mind-blowingly clever things I've ever studied, but obviously it's not a good thing at all.So there is a dark side, as with everything, and molecules can certainly be beautiful but deadly. They're still fairly amazing though, and the best thing is that we're constantly learning about them and new ways to work with them and against them. Discovering awesomeness at the same time as hopefully increasing our chances against iminent molecule-related doom!

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