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5 Ways to Make Protein Denaturation A More Approachable Topic

Akanksha Saxena
Teaching with Labster
October 18, 2022

Introduction: Protein Denaturation

Proteins are the basic building blocks of biological life on Earth. All living organisms except viroids produce proteins from combinations of different amino acids. DNA is first transcribed to RNA and RNA is finally translated to proteins. It’s proteins that bring forth the final manifestation of the genotype at the phenotypic level.

Proteins are very specific in their structures. After amino acids form a long polypeptide chain, many such chains are folded together with precisions to finally yield a functional form of protein. Any alteration to this precise folding and structure renders the protein incapable of carrying out its intended function. The process of protein denaturation is defined as the loss of protein function due to the application of external stress which disrupts the protein structures and folding. 

From ‘your egg whites getting cooked on the pan’ to ‘your hair becoming straight after rebonding and hair-straightening treatments’, protein denaturation is one lesser-known science concept that works around us in daily life.

We have gathered a variety of resources to help teachers discuss this topic in their next classes in a way that is both engaging and worthwhile. Continue reading to discover more about ways to make it simpler for your students to understand the science behind protein denaturation. We try to highlight all the issues encountered by students when dealing with the subject. We also list some practical solutions to solve the same. By the end, we’ll  share why a virtual lab simulation will prove useful not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

3 reasons why Protein Denaturation can be tricky to teach or learn

There are three reasons why students feel challenged by the topic of Protein Denaturation. Acknowledging these issues is the first step toward making the topic more approachable. 

1. Inability to identify real-life occurrences

Students are taught that proteins are well-folded structures with defined functions and their sensitivity to different stresses like heat, vigorous shaking, etc can denature them. But students find it hard to observe the phenomenon in real life. Teachers generally overlook this fact and continue to deliver lectures about stresses and intricate changes at the amino acid level and chemical bond levels. This makes the learning path boring and demotivating for students. 

2. Difficulty in visualization

Since proteins are macromolecular structures that aren’t visible to unaided eyes, students find it difficult to understand the process and mechanism of denaturation. It’s hard for students to imagine the different chemical bonds (hydrogen, covalent, ionic bonds) that are involved in the formation of a biologically functional protein molecule. How and which bond is affected in which order on exposure to denaturing forces are difficult ideas to put on the table for students in absence of visual tools and videos. The lack of illustrations, flowcharts, videos and demonstrations to decipher the clear 3D structure of proteins makes the educator’s task tougher.

3. Believed to be of no practical use

The topic of DNA, as well as protein denaturation, sounds too abstract and conjectural. Students face the challenge to learn the peculiar structures, formulas, bond numbers and strengths yet they are mostly unimpressed by science that disrupts protein structure. The main reason behind it is the challenge to recognize its applicability to practical life in science labs and the world beyond.

5 ways to make Protein Denaturation a more approachable topic to understand

To address the blocks encountered while teaching Protein Denaturation, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their classes. These can clarify many instrumental aspects of the major techniques involved. Not only can they make teaching easier for educators like you but will also make lessons clearer and easier to assimilate for your students.

1. Start with the basics

It is highly recommended to first introduce the concept of proteins comprehensively. Without prior knowledge about proteins, their structure and structure types (primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary), their functions, the interrelationship between structure and function, factors causing loss of function, etc, it can be a mind-boggling topic for students. You can choose to begin with one topic at a time and explain how they are related to protein denaturation. We have listed a few terms, to begin with:

  1. The native state of proteins versus the denatured state of proteins

  2. Different types of structures (primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary)

  3. Different types of chemical bonds involved (hydrogen, covalent, ionic bonds, hydrophobic, electrostatic, van der Waals)

protein denaturation in native state and denatured

Figure: Illustration showing the state transition of protein from native to denatured on exposure to stress. Image source

protein structure

Figure: Different types of protein structures; primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary. Image Source

2. Strengthen the core concepts

Several physical and chemical factors can lead to protein denaturation. Explaining how each one of them disrupts the protein structure thus reducing its solubility and leading to precipitation (aggregation) is important. Some of the factors that you can discuss are:

  1. The temperature of the protein’s environment (heat or radiation)

  2. The salinity of the protein’s environment (high inorganic salt concentrations)

  3. the pH of the protein’s environment (strong acids and bases)

  4. The pressure of the protein’s environment

  5. Solvents of the protein’s environment 

Any extreme or suboptimal conditions can lead to the disruption of the protein's structure and inevitably lead to its denaturation. Educators can choose to demonstrate all of these experiments by using egg whites in practical lab classes. When students conduct live experiments and see the protein of egg whites aggregating on exposure to extreme levels of environmental conditions, they can grasp the idea of protein denaturation in a more fun-filled manner.

protein denaturation virtual lab

Figure: A lab demonstration showing the effect of extreme environmental conditions (mechanical force and temperature) on egg white proteins. The Protein Denaturation simulation is provided by Labster and available for University / College classes.

3. Make it visually interactive and engaging

We understand that teaching about macromolecules like DNA and proteins is hard as students are challenged in visualizing the structures of the molecules. Since the protein denaturation topic is mostly about the loss of function due to changes in its structure, using 3D models, animated videos, visually engaging gifs and interactive learning tools could solve half of the problem. Educators can try building 3D models where the different side chains of proteins can be demarcated and their respective interactions with other side chains of the same protein and those on the different polypeptide chains can be studied. Teaching can become easier this way as students can get to hold the 3D model and learn about the influence of each side chain interaction on the protein structure.

Alternatively, you can also use Protein Denaturation simulation from Labster to save time building the 3D models.

protein interactions

Figure: Different types of side-chain interactions that get disrupted on protein denaturation. Image Source

4. Make them recognize the real-life occurrences and applications

We advise educators to apply science to real-world situations to help students learn more effectively. We provide some examples where protein denaturation happens but goes unnoticed.

  1. Coagulation of egg whites on vigorous beating and exposure to heat on a frying pan is the commonest occurrence of protein denaturation. 

  2. Curdling of milk with the addition of lime juice or vinegar

  3. Straightening of hair in hair treatment and beautification processes (uses keratin denaturing chemicals and exposure to heat)

  4. Hair styling products used at home

Such examples can bring substance and thrill to the boring lectures on protein denaturation. You can list more such examples to deliver the fundamental idea behind this science.

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Since protein denaturation is a complex, content-rich, and challenging topic to teach using conventional classroom tools (chalkboard teaching, ppts), we recommend educators to use the Protein Denaturation simulation from Labster.  Using this interactive simulation, you’ll be able to deliver an effective lesson on the subject that worries most of your students. You can make more insightful points as students are rendered with better visual options. The 3D simulations help them understand the intricacies of the denaturation process and the change in structures that lead to the loss of protein’s function. 

By using this way of active and immersive teaching along with the gamification elements, our virtual learning platform takes an advent in the field of Science to make the upcoming scientists thorough with the “basics of their respective subjects”. 

Protein Denaturation Virtual Lab

You can learn more about the Protein Denaturation simulation from Labster here or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students. 

Figure: An illustration showing the lab setup from the Protein Denaturation simulation by Labster. It is available for University / College classes.

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