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Proteomics and popular culture

Tyler Ford

Tyler Ford

September 4, 2022

If you poll your friends on what comes to mind when you say “protein,” most people will probably think of muscles, exercise, or what appears on the label of a cereal box. Most won’t think of proteins as key determinants of cellular function, health, and disease.

Nonetheless, proteins provide the molecular basis for most biological functions, and knowledge of the proteome, the full set of proteins in a biological sample, may be key to the development of advanced diagnostics, therapeutics, and biotechnologies. In other words, a better understanding of proteins could be the key to nothing less than dramatic improvements in human health .

To get more people excited about its vast potential, the proteome needs a bit of a PR boost! Hardly anyone had heard of the ‘human genome’ or ‘genes’ at one point, but they are now widely understood by the ‘science-curious’ among us as the ‘blueprint of life’. As you can see in the Google Books NGRAM viewer below, instances of  the word “proteome” in English language books lag far behind “genome.” It’s great to see that “protein” is popular, but we need “proteome” to at least achieve “genome” status.

Google Book Ngram showing the frequency of “protein,” “genome,” and “proteome” in books. Proteome is the least frequent and protein the most frequent.

While movies like Gattaca, heroes like the X-men, and companies like 23 and Me have catapulted genes and the genome into the popular imagination, the proteome has not gotten similar treatment and its high time the proteome gets its due.

Toward this end, we’re taking a proactive role by highlighting ways proteomics can and will interact with your life in both healthcare and popular culture. With examples ranging from the practical to the ridiculous, this post aims to get you more excited about the proteomics revolution!

The proteome and infectious disease diagnostics

Believe it or not, knowledge of the proteome may have already directly impacted your life. Clinical microbiology labs currently use proteomics technologies to identify bacteria and other microbes behind infectious diseases. Such microbes cannot be identified by patient symptoms alone and often need different treatments. For example, different kinds of bacteria are susceptible to different antibiotics.

Fortunately, different bacteria produce different proteins and can be identified by the make-up of their proteomes. If you’re sick, a clinician can use proteomics to analyze bacterial samples from you and prescribe an appropriate treatment.

Futuristic applications of the proteome – the medical tricorder

The much-beloved SciFi franchise, Star Trek, chronicles the exploits of space-faring adventurers tasked with benevolently seeking out new life in the galaxy. On their adventures, crew members inevitably become infected with alien diseases and intrepid medical officers must sleuth out their ailments to come up with appropriate treatments.

The medical officers make use of so-called “medical tricorders.” These handheld, high-tech devices can scan over patient’s bodies, somehow peer into all their tissues and organs without so much as a scratch, and quickly diagnose the cause of an ailment while also providing general health stats.

Star Trek does not provide explicit details on the mechanics of medical tricorders, but wequite imaginatively – posit that they must be powered by proteomics. Indeed, a rapid analysis of the proteome could show (among other things):

  • If proteins from a disease-causing organism were in your body 
  • If you had elevated levels of proteins known to be associated with a disease 
  • If you had mutated forms of proteins known to be associated with a disease 
  • If disrupted or broken tissues released proteins into your bloodstream 

While any future medical tricorder would probably be equipped with other functionalities like DNA sequencing, its capacity to rapidly analyze the proteome would give medical officers the most comprehensive real-time assessment of patient health possible. With this information in hand, they could quickly treat their patients and get back to exploring the galaxy.

Proteomes and superheroes

For better or for worse, superheroes permeate popular culture. To our knowledge, the proteome hasn’t been explicitly featured in a superhero story (yet!), but there are many ways the proteome and superheroes might intersect.

  • Spiderman and his webs – Some versions of Spiderman produce webs in their bodies, but others must manufacture their own. These latter versions would be aided by knowledge of the spider proteome. Spiders make webs with many different properties – some have toxins, some support spiders as they dangle horrifyingly above your bed, and others trap prey. By monitoring changes in the spider proteome as spiders produce different kinds of webs, spiderman could discover what proteins give rise to their different properties. He could use this knowledge to come up with ways to modify his webs for different purposes.
  • Controlling The Hulk – When The Hulk gets angry, he gets more muscular, turns green, grows taller, and loses control. These rapid and reversible transitions are likely caused by changes in proteins as opposed to more permanent changes in DNA. If Bruce Banner (The Hulk) monitored changes in his proteome as he transformed, he might develop a better understanding of the molecular underpinnings of his transformation and learn to control it.

Accelerating breakthroughs via interactions with popular culture

At Nautilus we are firm believers that cross pollination between different fields and disciplines leads to ground-breaking discoveries. While some of the above hypothesized interactions between proteomics and popular culture might seem silly, we hope they help you think more broadly about the power of proteomics. Much of popular culture may seem like a fantasy, but knowledge of the proteome may one day make these fantasies a reality!

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