What Is Protein Engineering?

Benjamin Arie

Protein engineering is a method that can be used to develop new types of proteins. This field of science is relatively new, and original ways of combining protein elements continue to be studied and discovered by researchers. This type of engineering allows materials with specific strengths or features to be developed.

One example of protein engineering is the development of modified insulin.
One example of protein engineering is the development of modified insulin.

Rational design and directed evolution are the two basic approaches to protein engineering. Some researchers prefer one approach over the other, however both methods can be used to design new protein structures. Rational design relies on comprehensive knowledge of how an existing protein is built. Directed evolution, in contrast, uses random protein changes and can be performed without knowing every detail of a protein’s structure.

Each approach to protein engineering has both advantages and disadvantages. Rational design allows scientists to change the structure of a protein in a predicable way, and is a relatively inexpensive process. This technique requires experts to have a detailed structural blueprint of each protein being modified, which is not always available.

The directed evolution protein engineering method uses trial and error, and does not need a full structural map. This method is often time consuming and expensive, due to the requirement that each new protein combination must be tested and only a few of the created structures are suitable for use. Despite the cost, directed evolution often allows researchers to encounter valuable protein structure combinations that otherwise would not be discovered.

Protein design enables scientists to create unique materials that do not occur in nature. Researchers have used this type of engineering to combine fluorescent protein from a jellyfish with another protein from human cells, for example. The resulting substance creates a green glow, and can be tracked as it interacts with living cells. This provides valuable information about how proteins function in the human body, and assists researchers in the creation of new medicines and procedures.

Another example of protein engineering is the development of modified insulin. Scientists have combined different protein structures to create both fast-acting and slow-acting insulin substances. Both of these man made variations are valuable for individuals with insulin disorders, such as diabetes.

New proteins are also useful in industrial applications. Manufacturing facilities, for instance, can use engineered proteins that are resistant to specific chemicals. Experts can combine the structures of strong proteins to create new, ultra-strong substances. In the future, protein design may be an important part of nearly every field.

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