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Spectrometrists Seek Inspiration by the Surf

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Part scientific meeting, part trade show, and part meat-market is how many scientists view the annual conferences of their specialties. But sometimes scientists get together just to talk ideas. Mass spectrometrists did just that in late October at the rustic Asilomar Conference Center on California’s Monterey Peninsula.

“What Comes after Proteomics?” was the gathering’s ironic theme: The potential of mass spec to profile hundreds or thousands of proteins in a tissue sample has only recently become widely appreciated among spectrometrists and biotech researchers alike. Even as the pace of proteomics research accelerates, mass spectrometrists are setting their sights on their next goal — protein structure, critical to understanding how proteins function and interact. “The most exciting thing was to realize just how much mass spectrometry has to offer the study of the three-dimensional structure of a protein,” says co-organizer David Clemmer, associate professor of chemistry at Indiana University.

The first mass spec meeting to focus on protein structure, Asilomar brought spectrometrists together with x-ray crystallographers, nuclear magnetic resonance specialists, and protein chemists for a series of sessions that were no doubt enhanced by the backdrop of Pacific Ocean, sand dunes, and sea lions.

The high surf-to-noise ratio apparently worked its magic. Underscoring highlights of the conference, Clemmer reports, “We learned about the structures of protein-protein interactions in solution and ways to understand how a peptide intrinsically establishes a structure in the gas phase, which is important for computational efforts to calculate structure.”

While x-ray crystallography still offers the gold standard for molecular structure, he notes that many proteins are difficult to crystallize. “Mass spectroscopy can in some cases provide information about structure with only a minimal amount of material and very rapid throughput.”

Noting that diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s involve misfolded proteins, Clemmer suggests that the potential for mass spectrometry to study structure will likely stimulate further interest: “I expect the growth in proteomics to parallel the growth in genomics,” he says.

—Bill Oldendorf

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