Proteins are found all over our bodies. They give structure and form to hair, skin, muscles, and every part of the body. Different proteins have various functions in the body – some, like keratin, are for maintaining structure, while others, like antibodies, defend the body against foreign invaders.
Proteins are also highly useful in medicine. Artificial insulin, for example, has made life easier for people with diabetes. Monoclonal antibodies are valuable treatments for cancer patients. Scientists have even repurposed naturally-occurring proteins called enzymes as cleaning products. Many detergents contain enzymes like proteases, amylases, and lipases to help eliminate stains from clothes.
For students looking to pursue careers in biotechnology or medicine, this topic is important for them to know. But students learning about it for the first time might find the lessons intimidating. Thankfully, there are many ways to make it more engaging and approachable. Read on to find out how.
First, let’s look at why students find it challenging to learn protein synthesis. Here are the top three challenges according to both students and teachers.
Proteins are molecules contained inside cells. That means they’re even smaller than bacteria. Proteins cannot be seen under the microscope, so there are other ways of visualizing them. The process of protein synthesis cannot be seen in real-time, either. A process that cannot be followed visually is often difficult to comprehend for many students.
In their most basic forms, proteins are long chains of amino acids. Different combinations and arrangements of amino acids create the wide range of proteins in our bodies. But manufacturing these proteins is more than connecting one amino acid to the next. The protein also must be shaped properly so it can function properly. This involves a lot of processes within cells, which are themselves controlled by other proteins.
Proteins require specific environmental conditions to function properly. For example, many proteins in the body will not work in acidic or basic environments. They are designed to function only in a pH of 7, which is the normal condition of the body. Proteins are also sensitive to temperature changes – most of them will be destroyed if exposed to heat, for instance. Thus, students need to be careful in keeping conditions ideal for protein synthesis to work properly.
Based on students' difficulties understanding protein synthesis, here are five tips for educators to make the topic more interesting. Each piece of advice addresses a particular challenge that students face.
Protein synthesis may be a difficult topic on its own for many students. But if you talk about its many applications, students will start to appreciate the topic. Here are a few points to consider.
Insulin is a protein that controls blood sugar levels, and it is a common medication for people with diabetes. In the past, insulin shots were costly and difficult to manufacture on a large scale. Now, thanks to advances in protein synthesis technology, insulin can be mass produced using E. coli bacteria. This process churns out large quantities of insulin in a short time, making insulin medications cheaper.
Some vaccines for COVID-19 are products of protein synthesis. Novavax is a vaccine that uses SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins that were synthesized in the lab. This vaccine is as helpful as other COVID-19 vaccines in preventing the onset of severe symptoms and hospitalizations.
If students can appreciate these applications of protein synthesis, they will sooner realize how important this topic is.
Students will learn this topic better if they are exposed to visual aids. These include illustrations, diagrams, graphics, and images of proteins and the process of synthesizing them. If students can see diagrams of the process of protein synthesis, they can better understand how it works.
Videos, in particular, come in handy for learning this topic. They allow students to follow protein synthesis from start to finish. This way, they can easily master the concepts behind this topic.
Interactive simulations are even better. They let students perform lab techniques in a safe, computer-generated environment. The experience is a lot like working in a real lab, but it’s much safer. If they make mistakes, there is no risk of harming themselves or damaging lab equipment. Once they master the technique in the virtual world, they will be more confident as they perform actual lab work.
The image below is from Labster’s simulation entitled Protein Synthesis.
Students must first have a proper understanding of foundational concepts before diving into protein synthesis. Here are some of the basics that students need to understand this topic.
Proteins, the building blocks of life, are synthesized in all living cells. Humans have tens of thousands of types of proteins, which are all constructed from 20 amino acids. Multiple amino acids connected by peptide bonds form a polypeptide.
However, a polypeptide is not the same as a protein. A functional protein is not just one polypeptide chain; it is one or more polypeptides precisely folded into a unique molecular shape. This specific protein structure determines its function.
Translation is the synthesis of a polypeptide using information provided by mRNA. Translation takes place in the ribosomes, which themselves are proteins. The ribosome facilitates the addition and bonding of amino acids to the growing polypeptide chain.
A codon is the three letters of mRNA that encode one amino acid. All possible combinations of the four available base pairs (A, T, C, and G) give 64 different codons. With this many possibilities, one amino acid can be represented by more than one codon. However, one codon cannot specify more than one amino acid. This code specifies the amino acid that will be used to make up a protein.
A mass spectrometer is an analytical tool used to measure the molecular mass of a sample. It is one of the things used to determine the presence of a particular protein in a sample.
An expression system is like a molecular factory used to synthesize proteins in the lab. These can be bacteria, like E. coli. In fact, E. coli expression systems are common because it is easy to work with and produces large quantities of proteins. Recombinant insulin, for example, is often produced using E. coli expression systems.
A recombinant protein is a protein produced in an organism that does not normally manufacture that protein. This is made possible by inserting foreign DNA encoding the protein into host cells. The host cells then produce the protein according to the instructions encoded in the foreign DNA. The result is a recombinant protein.
Students who have no experience in biotechnology may find this topic intimidating. For this reason, it’s important to use actual experience to build their confidence. It’s helpful to have students practice basic techniques like bacterial transformation, protein extraction, and purification.
Once students get the hang of the basic techniques, they will be equipped to handle actual experiments in the lab. They will be familiar with routine methods already, and they will be more confident in performing protein synthesis experiments.
If actual lab work cannot be done, video demos and interactive simulations prove useful. Simulations like those found in Labster can help students have the necessary skills they need before embarking on actual lab work.
Virtual lab simulations are excellent tools for teaching protein synthesis. Labster is determined to deliver fully interactive advanced laboratory simulations that make use of gamification elements like storytelling and scoring systems while exposing students to an immersive, realistic, 3D environment.
Check out this simulation called Protein Synthesis at Labster. This virtual lab allows students to perform decontamination and antibiotic selection in a safe, computer-generated environment. With this, students will gain the confidence to eventually perform the procedure on their own in an actual lab.
The image below is an example of what students can explore in the simulation.