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My protein and me

By The Staff

One of my mentors-at-a-distance was Carl Sagan. I watched his now-famous TV show, Cosmos, read some of his books and read his articles in the popular media. His words in a Sunday magazine article, though written over 20 years ago, blazed off the paper and have stuck with me through the years. Carl saw the training he received as a great gift, one that the son of an immigrant would never have received except for this wonderful confluence of time and space – here and now and in America. Carl saw his sharing of knowledge as both a privilege and a responsibility, a small return of the gift he’d been given by his culture. Carl was right. Here’s my attempt to return that great gift you’ve given me, America.

Imagine that you are a protein. You float around in a warm, salty bath much like seawater on a warm beach. Parts of you make gentle spirals like a twisted ribbon, while other parts loop around and form attachments that literally keep you in the shape nature intended. Parts of you flex and twist and spin as you lumber along, slowly tumbling head-over-heels and moving side-to-side, up-and-down in that salty bath. And you do lumber slowly because you are very big. Flitting by you and spinning like mini-dervishes in that salty, warm bath are millions and millions of much smaller objects that humans call “water.” These water “molecules” are little, really little along your protein bigness. If these water molecules were a thirty-second of an inch across, the size of the proverbial mustard seed, your royal protein-ness would be a ball 14 feet across. So you lumber along, flexing and tumbling, as water, and salt, flits and darts around, banging into you with great frequency. Mostly the water just bounces off, but a couple dozen or so tend to take up more permanent residence. They nestle alongside, finding parts of you very attractive, stay in their nice little nook for a while, then float back out, only to be replaced by another of the millions of their kind.

So, along with all your protein-y carbons, nitrogens, oxygens, hydrogens and an occasional sulfur or metal, a couple dozen water molecules hitch a ride. But water and salt aren’t the only things in your universe. There are other big things out there as well, things like you only different. In fact, since you “live” in a human being, there are a million other big things like you, some exactly like you but most different. As you drift along in that warm seawater, sometimes you drift near those other proteins. Mostly you just drift on by, maybe banging into each other for a quick moment. But sometimes, there’s just something terribly attractive about that approaching lummox. As you approach each other, you feel an irresistible force, drawing you nearer, turning just so as you approach. Then you join, your bigness combining with its bigness make something bigger yet. There’s no rhyme or reason to your union, it’s simply in your nature to interact. So for a good long time, maybe a fraction of a second or so, you and your partner drift along together and then simply part ways. That’s the way it usually goes, you drift along, form temporary unions, then drift back apart. Among the millions of your protein kind, you might form a thousand different unions with most of those unions having no impact. And not just with other proteins. There are other big things out there, too, some of them making you feel like a dwarf. There are long, twisted-ladder shapes lurking around that humans call DNA and RNA. Then there are things like undulating walls, embedding and enclosing some of your protein kin in a bubble skin that humans call cells. Cells are huge. You bump into these twisted ladders and undulating walls, too.

That’s the life of a protein like you. You drift along in your warm seawater, encountering other proteins and other big objects like DNA or cells. Usually you just drift along, bouncing off each other if your paths intersect. But occasionally you form unions, sticking to another protein, a DNA molecule or a cell for a brief period. Most of those unions don’t matter, but some matter a lot. When those important unions form, maybe an arm contracts or an eye twitches. Other unions set off a round of chemical factories, breaking down fats or sugars. Other unions are the trigger for even making other proteins, making DNA unwind or causing a cell to spew out its innards. And not all those unions are good.

You don’t know it – you can’t really “know” anything, you’re a protein – but you are flawed. It’s not your fault, but the piece of DNA that was the plan for your kind was, itself, flawed. So there’s this little piece of you that’s not quite what it should be. It doesn’t seem to really matter. You still float along doing all those protein-y things but there’s a problem. When you approach one of those other proteins and feel the familiar tug, you join up. The problem is, you weren’t supposed to interact with that particular protein. When you did, maybe that other protein couldn’t do its job right. Maybe you couldn’t because you were all tied up. So the muscle didn’t contract or the factory didn’t work or the protein didn’t get made. And the human you live in feels sick.

Maybe it’s just a sneeze and runny nose your defect causes. But it could be worse, maybe the beginning of a slow process to forgetfulness, maybe a loss of muscle control, or maybe the creation of cells that don’t really belong. It could be lots of conditions that humans call “disease.” Sometimes humans can fix these “diseases,” sometimes not. Mostly they don’t know yet since most of your kind is still a mystery and your unions and what they do are really a mystery.

But there are no mysteries in your universe. You are just a protein doing your protein-y things.

Thanks, Carl. May you rest in peace.

Ray C. Perkins is a 1969 Owen County High School graduate with a BS from Georgetown College and PhD from Vanderbilt.