Modeling Protein Structure & Function: Pencil Transferase


The interrelationship of structure and function is a key theme of biology. One important example of this relationship involves how the three-dimensional shapes of proteins are related to the roles they play at the cellular level. The treatment of protein structure in many introductory textbooks, however, is cursory and focuses on the relationships among primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structure without a clear link to how these levels of organization contribute to functional aspects of the protein. This short and engaging hands-on activity helps reinforce the connection between the ultimate spatial conformation of a specific protein and its “job.” By exploring the structure and function of a hypothetical protein, students develop a conceptual understanding of how these important elements connect in real life (e.g., the roles of actin and myosin in muscle contraction, of proton pumps in cellular energy conversions, or of immunoglobulin proteins in helping an immune system fight off foreign invaders). Although this activity was designed for secondary-level students, it could also be modified for undergraduates. With the advent of free and readily accessible programs for viewing protein structures, as well as an increasing number of structure files and curated collections of proteins, biology instructors have at their disposal an array of examples of the striking beauty and diversity of proteins. A brief glossary and selected resources are listed at the end of this article.


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Jeanne Ting Chowning
Dina Kovarik
Joan Griswold
American Biology Teacher
STEM Content and Standards
Teacher Professional Development and Pedagogy
Publication Year
Additional Disciplines
Bioscience - general