Protein Jewellery – Building a Necklace out of Amino Acid Beads.

21 Nov

Annette modelling this season's hydrophilic peptide range.

How can jewellery better represent biological compounds? Its a problem that’s troubled me for years. Luckily a group of us found the solution a few months back when we came up with the idea of beads representing amino acids that can be strung together to make a protein. My jewellery-based dream came true when I got to sport my own protein necklace at the Science Spectacular earlier this month. It was ace.

There are quite a few activities you can do based around the idea of beads representing amino acid. An old colleague (who was in the group that came up with the idea) used to do an activity called ‘Mutation Station’ which demonstrated how changes in DNA can cause changes in protein.

For the activity ‘Protein Jewellery’ there are several concepts covered and it can be scaled up or scaled down according to which concepts you would like to cover. The main point is that all animals, whether they be human, cow, pig, ostrich, snake, owl or even…erm…….ant, they’re all made out of protein. The building blocks of these proteins are amino acids. Our DNA contains 4 bases A, T, C and G and it is the order of these bases that hold the instructions for how to put these amino acids together and make a protein. When we talk about genes, that means a portion of your DNA that codes for a specific protein.

Below are the worksheets we used at the Science Spectacular. In each case there were pots of beads labelled with an amino acid 3 letter abbreviation. There’s also a hand out with an explanation of protein synthesis here.

Worksheet 1

From this sheet you can simply pick a protein from the list (by the by, these are sequences I just made up – they don’t correspond to an actual protein) and assemble it using the labelled beads. The take home message is that we’re made out of protein and proteins are made out of the ‘building blocks’ amino acids.

Worksheet 2 and 3

This version is a bit more difficult. The idea is to use the key to convert the DNA sequence into a protein. The sheets were laminated so that the jewellery maker could write on the amino acids using a dry wipe pen and then the sheet could be reused. The take home message is that protein is made out of amino acids AND that our DNA contains the instructions for how to build the proteins using amino acids.

This was the hydrophobic protein necklace.

In both cases you can discuss the fact proteins can have properties like charge or solubility. The way the necklace turns out largely depends on what colour bead you choose for each amino acid. I designed all the sequences to be symetrical so hopefully they should always turn out pretty snazzy. Its a good idea to have a finished nacklace/bracelet to check whether the jewellery maker has translated their protein right. Or not. It’s your call.

I’m pretty sure this activity can be used for any age group from 11 years upwards and it should tie in with the AS-level syllabus covering protein synthesis. In either case, you get to make merge biology with accessories – what more could you ask for in a 10 minute activity? Judging from the visitors at the science spectacular – free sweets!

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