Basic Techniques in Protein Analysis
The ultimate goal of proteomics is to identify or compare the proteins expressed from a given genome under specific conditions, study the interactions between the proteins, and use the information to predict cell behavior or develop drug targets. Just as the genome is analyzed using the basic technique of DNA sequencing, proteomics requires techniques for protein analysis. The basic technique for protein analysis, analogous to DNA sequencing, is mass spectrometry. Mass spectrometry is used to identify and determine the characteristics of a molecule.
Advances in spectrometry have allowed researchers to analyze very small samples of protein. X-ray crystallography, for example, enables scientists to determine the three-dimensional structure of a protein crystal at atomic resolution. Another protein imaging technique, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), uses the magnetic properties of atoms to determine the three-dimensional structure of proteins in aqueous solution. Protein microarrays have also been used to study interactions between proteins. Large-scale adaptations of the basic two-hybrid screen (see the figure below) have provided the basis for protein microarrays. Computer software is used to analyze the vast amount of data generated for proteomic analysis.
Genomic- and proteomic-scale analyses are part of systems biology. Systems biology is the study of whole biological systems (genomes and proteomes) based on interactions within the system. The European Bioinformatics Institute and the Human Proteome Organization (HUPO) are developing and establishing effective tools to sort through the enormous pile of systems biology data. Because proteins are the direct products of genes and reflect activity at the genomic level, it is natural to use proteomes to compare the protein profiles of different cells to identify proteins and genes involved in disease processes. Most pharmaceutical drug trials target proteins. Information obtained from proteomics is being used to identify novel drugs and understand their mechanisms of action.
The challenge of techniques used for proteomic analyses is the difficulty in detecting small quantities of proteins. Although mass spectrometry is good for detecting small amounts of proteins, variations in protein expression in diseased states can be difficult to discern. Proteins are naturally unstable molecules, which makes proteomic analysis much more difficult than genomic analysis.