Earlier this summer, well-known astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson posted a series of tweets titled "Mysteries of #Gravity," which illuminated some of the scientific errors in Alfonso Cuarón’s blockbuster "Gravity." Dr. Tyson, of course, also gave credit where it was due and praised the film’s overall quality, as well as the many scientifically precise scenarios it depicts.
As a scientist, I too have found myself noting both scientific accuracies and inaccuracies in films and TV shows. In fact, I ran a movie club, "This Film is Rated PhD," where graduate students discussed and debated portrayals of science by Hollywood. One film whose scientific depictions recently caught my eye is the 2011 medical thriller "Contagion."
The creators of "Contagion" greatly emphasized accurately depicting a viral outbreak and the scientific response to such a pandemic. As a structural biologist, I was initially very excited to see the mention of an x-ray crystal structure (something I’ve worked towards as part of my PhD thesis work); however, this excitement quickly dissipated when I realized the context of its presentation. What was the problem you ask? Although, they show a beautiful structure of a viral protein that helps them understand the origins of the virus, the likelihood that they would have obtained that structure in the given timeline (about a week) is virtually non-existent.
To understand why, let me first explain a little about structural biology. Just as a building’s design greatly dictates its uses, so too does a protein’s structure influence its functionality. Solving protein structures is therefore a highly attractive endeavor for advancing our understanding of diseases related to protein malfunctions, and for development of novel therapeutics. It has been said that “nothing worth having comes easily” and protein structure determination is a great example of this.
For one, proteins are tiny. Even the largest proteins measure only several nanometers (x10-9 m, this means that roughly 10,000 proteins can span the width of a human hair). Therefore really powerful tools must be used to "see" a protein structure. X-ray crystallography is just one such tool for the determination of protein structures, but since its initial use in the 1950s it has been one of the most prevalent methods.
So how long does it take to solve a protein structure? Unfortunately there is no definite timeline, which most structural biologist graduate students can attest. There are many steps on the way to a protein structure (see diagram below).
First, we must be able to obtain the protein of interest. Once that is possible (easier said than done), the protein must be isolated so that it specifically can be crystallized. To obtain protein crystals requires the testing of several hundred conditions that can allow for protein crystals to form. Next, the protein crystals are subjected to an x-ray beam. Since x-rays are electromagnetic waves like visible light, when then x-ray beam hits the protein in the crystal the x-rays will scatter. The scattered x-rays are captured by a detector to obtain the diffraction pattern, which consists of a series of spots that contain information about the location of electrons in the protein (really they are much like GPS coordinates). These spots help the scientists create a map of what the protein looks like. Although the steps seem rather straight forward, each of the aforementioned steps can take months or YEARS! The process is also not linear and there is often a lot of backtracking to optimize, or revise, the process to obtain the best data for the final structure.
Knowing all the work that goes into a structure, I just can’t help but cringe at the reported timeline in the movie "Contagion." Believe me, I would love for it to be that fast so that I could have graduated years ago but, alas, that is not how things truly go. However, when all is said and done, I owe the film "Contagion" a great deal of gratitude for giving me a point of reference when it comes to explaining what my thesis involves. It was actually great to see a nod to the importance of structural biology and maybe it will actually help inspire a new generation of structural biologists!