Tactile teaching: Exploring protein structure/function using physical models*


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    This work was supported by grants from the NIH National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program and from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement program. The development of RP-RasMol and Mini-Toobers was supported by SBIR awards from the NIH NCRR and NSF to 3D Molecular Designs.


The technology now exists to construct physical models of proteins based on atomic coordinates of solved structures. We review here our recent experiences in using physical models to teach concepts of protein structure and function at both the high school and the undergraduate levels. At the high school level, physical models are used in a professional development program targeted to biology and chemistry teachers. This program has recently been expanded to include two student enrichment programs in which high school students participate in physical protein modeling activities. At the undergraduate level, we are currently exploring the usefulness of physical models in communicating concepts of protein structure and function that have been traditionally difficult to teach. We discuss our recent experience with two such examples: the close-packed nature of an enzyme active site and the pH-induced conformational change of the influenza hemagglutinin protein during virus infection.