5 Ways to Unwind the Complex Process of Protein Synthesis

Sana Shujat

Everybody is familiar with protein and its role in building stronger and bigger muscles. However, in biology, we learn that protein is also integral to many other processes like regulating biochemical reactions, hormone production, and immune function. 

Interestingly, the biomolecular machinery works 24/7 to build necessary proteins through a complex process known as translation (protein synthesis).

The translation is the second step in gene expression following transcription. Gene expression is a process that yields functional gene products like proteins using the information stored in DNA. DNA is first transcribed to RNA (transcription), then RNA is translated to amino acids/proteins (translation). Therefore, we need to learn about the transcription process before getting into the intricacy of the translation process. This two-in-one surprise demotivates students, making it challenging to keep their learning spirits high.

This article highlights why protein synthesis is somewhat intimidating for teachers and students, along with five helpful tips to turn the tables and introduce the virtual lab, making it less daunting. 

Protein synthesis GIF

GIF from Labster's Protein Synthesis simulation available for high school and university level learning.

Why could protein synthesis be tricky?

The translation is undoubtedly one of the trickiest concepts that could overwhelm educators and learners. The three most common reasons for making protein synthesis a challenging attempt are as follows:

1. It seems abstract

The protein synthesizing factory operates at a molecular level, making it difficult to sketch an exact picture with theoretical lessons. It’s hard to comprehend how ribosomes, mRNA, and incoming amino acids find each other and fit perfectly to form proteins. 

2. It’s content-heavy

The journey of protein synthesis is long, with many agents playing their roles to execute the process. The processed mRNA carries the essential signals to the ribosomes resting in the cytoplasm, leading to protein synthesis. The production is divided into three stages initiation, elongation, and termination. So, it is natural for students to get lost along the way as there are many concepts to keep up with. 

3. It’s complicated

The main components of translation include mRNA, tRNA, and ribosomes. The ribosomes are responsible for protein synthesis and lead the way by reading the message on mRNA. The tRNA transfers the amino acids to the ribosomes complementary to the base pairs exposed on the mRNA. The tRNA keeps on adding new amino acids at the 3’end of mRNA. These amino acids then link together to form long chains unless interrupted by a stop codon. Students need to understand the structure and function of all these components, which makes it discouraging and demoralizing.

5 ways to make protein synthesis a more approachable topic

Here are five ideas you could implement in your lesson plan to teach protein synthesis uniquely and interactively. These suggestions have been made considering the most common issues teachers face.

1. Show the people behind the science

Storytelling is the most helpful method to grab students’ attention. Therefore, I spent some time digging a little history of the process to help students relate with the discoverer. 

It won’t be fair to crown the discovery of protein synthesis to a particular scientist. Zamecnik, a nester of protein synthesis, stated that an impressive list of pioneers blazed the trail to the present scene, making it an eminently multidisciplinary endeavor. 

This scientific endeavor dates back to the beginning of the 20th century when Franz Hofmeister and Emil Fischer recognized the peptide bond structure of proteins. Fritz Lipmann enlightened us about the presence of a high-energy phosphate intermediate, while Max Bergmann reported the specificity of proteolytic enzymes. Torbjörn Caspersson and Jean Brachet unraveled the role of RNA in protein synthesis, followed by the discovery of Frederick Sanger, who discovered the first primary protein structure. Sanger also showed the amino acid specification to produce insulin. All this work led up to the efforts of George Palade, who presented visual evidence of protein synthesis with particulate structures in the cytoplasm acting as the cellular sites.

2. Relate it to the real world

Introducing the men behind the scientific concept already sparks an interest in the students, who now want to know more about proteins. It is the right time to showcase the significance of proteins and their application in nature. 

Try to keep your examples versatile; tell them how excess or deficiency of a protein in any form (hormones, enzymes) affects normal body functions. For instance, the protein erythropoietin regulates the production of red blood cells, fueling oxygen demand. Likewise, melanin protein is responsible for our hair and skin pigmentation. 

Share helpful information with a story or interesting fact, like give them the example of Luciferase, the enzyme found in lightening bugs that helps them to shine. Scientists use the enzyme in laboratory research for medical imaging where protein extracted from firefly luciferase is mixed with a dye emitting near-infrared light, helping to detect blood clots.  

3. Seeing is believing

The process of protein synthesis is advanced, and students won’t believe in it unless they visualize it through animations. The colorful animations make detecting different components of the translation complex easy. 

The image shown below shows the protein synthesis at the molecular level. It is fascinating for students to watch how mRNA threads out of the ribosome as new amino acids enter at the 3’end of the mRNA strand. 

Explore Protein Synthesis Virtual Lab Simulation

4. Make it stick with word-play

Visual aids like simulations help to comprehend scientific concepts effectively, but certain tricks to learn complicated or unique words come in handy during exams. The word-play facilitates students with a road map to follow all the steps involved in the topic without missing essential details. 

Luckily, the vocabulary in this process is self-explanatory: initiation, the start of the process; elongation, adding new amino acids; termination, end of the chain formation.

mRNA (messenger RNA) is responsible for sending messages from the nucleus to the cytoplasm, which initiates the process. tRNA (transfer RNA) plays the role of excellent transporter transferring amino acids to the P site. 

Students often find remembering functions of A, P, and E sites in the large ribosomal subunit challenging. The easy way is to always read it as “A, P, E site,” where A being the first letter is the first binding site for tRNA, P site is second, and E is the third. The ‘P’ here stands for ‘peptidyl,’ making it evident that the growing peptide chain would stick at this place. Also, ‘E’ stands for ‘exit,’ clarifying that the empty tRNA moves out of the complex from here. 

5. Use virtual lab simulations

A unique way to teach protein synthesis is through virtual lab simulations. Our team at Labster is dedicated to delivering advanced interactive laboratory simulations that use game elements like storytelling and quiz (scoring system) inside an immersive and engaging 3D universe. 

Protein Synthesis Simulation

Look at the Labster protein synthesis simulation that allows students to visualize the process and learn through activity and inquiry-based learning. The 3D animation simulation shows how triplets of codons in the RNA sequence are translated into amino acids. Observe how these amino acids are joined together by peptide bonds to create a polypeptide chain: this is the primary structure of a protein.

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