A program that focuses on the scientific study of submolecular and molecular components and assemblies of living systems and how they are organized into functional units such as cells and anatomic tissues. Includes instruction in glycoprotein, carbohydrate, protein, and nucleic acid structures and chemistry; cytoskeletal structure; nuclear and intracellular structures; molecular recognition; molecular chaperones; transcription and folding; multicellular organization; microtubules and microfilaments; cell differentiation; immunophysics; and DNA sequencing.

Careers in structural biology focus on understanding and modeling the forms of biological molecules.

A molecule is a group of atoms with chemical bonds holding them together. Molecules come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from long strings and coils to clumps and crystals. In many cases, the shape determines the function of a particular molecule. The structural integrity of that molecule allows it to do its job, meaning that diseases often correspond to misshapen structures on the molecular level. Proteins in particular have a tendency to fold or twist, which can warp a molecule's shape and alter its ability to function as needed.

By interrupting the structure of a molecule or interfering with its chemical bonds, a structural biologist can restore its intended function or render it inactive and therefore nonthreatening.

There are various methods for observing molecular structures, including NMR spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography, and cryo-electron microscopy, which allow researchers to see structures such as proteins, molecules, or viruses. Scientists also frequently use 3D modeling software to visualize structures and test various strategies for altering them.

Work in structural biology may include...

  • Designing proteins to perform specific tasks
  • 3D computer modeling molecules to observe their shapes
  • Using tools and techniques to view or unravel proteins
  • Developing new ways to visualize molecules and their activity
  • Collaborating with other scientists on various projects

Employers of structural biologists include hospital research facilities, university labs, pharmaceutical companies, and private scientific development organizations. They are also sometimes hired by government agencies or pharmaceutical companies, developing drugs that incorporate structural interference principles. This is a growing industry that may hold the keys to curing cancer, Alzheimer's, and more, and jobs are being created to reflect this. Candidates who hold advanced degrees may teach structural biology, which is being added to the science curriculum with increasing frequency.

The best place to start exploring structural biology is in an undergraduate science program, although courses may not be available at some colleges. It's essential to develop an understanding of physical chemistry and biochemistry, as well as molecular biology, before attempting structural biology coursework. There is significant overlap between the techniques used in each discipline. Coursework in genetics or immunology may also prove useful. After completing undergraduate coursework in structural biology and obtaining a Bachelor's degree, it may be possible to find work in a lab. However, many labs that do structural biology work prefer to hire candidates with a Masters degree or PhD; there are a number of specialized graduate programs all over the country that offer a structural biology track and allow for in-depth study and collaborative research.

Structural biology relies on the understanding that shape matters; it's a rapidly expanding field that holds a lot of promise for future advancements in science. Are you ready to unfold proteins with the best of them? Maybe structural biology is the field for you.

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