The Turn of the Screw: An Exercise in Protein Secondary Structure

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An exercise using simple paper strips to illustrate protein helical and sheet secondary structures is presented. Drawing on the rich historical context of the use of physical models in protein biochemistry by early practitioners, in particular Linus Pauling, the purpose of this activity is to cultivate in students a hands-on, intuitive sense of protein secondary structure and to complement the common computer-based structural portrayals often used in teaching biochemistry. As students fold these paper strips into model secondary structures, they will better grasp how intramolecular hydrogen bonds form in the folding of a polypeptide into secondary structure, and how these hydrogen bonds direct the overall shape of helical and sheet structures, including the handedness of the alpha-helix and the difference between right- and the left-handed twist.