Challenging a Nobel Laureate

University Honors College graduate Justin Biel explains his research on chemical structure. (Photo by Andy Cripe)
University Honors College graduate Justin Biel explains his research on protein structures. (Photo by Andy Cripe)

Justin Biel’s work could force molecular biologists to rethink basics of protein structure.

Linus Pauling won the 1954 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his description of the chemical bond that holds protein molecules together. Sixty years later, an undergraduate researcher at Oregon State University, where Pauling did his own undergrad work, prompted scientists to take a hard look at that model.

Pauling described the connection between protein building blocks, known as the peptide bond, as an arrangement of six atoms that essentially are all on the same plane. It was a groundbreaking insight that helped launch the field of molecular biology and has shaped scientific understanding of protein structure for the past six decades.

But Biel, a University Honors College student working with professor Andy Karplus, analyzed information from a databank of protein structures and found a large number of proteins that deviated from Pauling’s planar model. He also reviewed scientific literature on the subject and discovered that a number of researchers in the 1970s had proposed a similar idea, but they were largely ignored.

Biel’s research has shown that the long-accepted Pauling view of proteins is “a little too simplified,” Karplus said. “It will help get that final level of detail that’s needed to get truly accurate predictions of protein structure.”

Having a clear image of the architecture of these tiny yet intricate constructs has major implications for medicine and human health. “Proteins do almost everything in the body,” Biel pointed out. “And at that scale, a protein’s structure determines its function. So we study the structure of proteins to figure out how they work and also possibly to provide targets for drugs.”

After graduating from OSU in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and biophysics, Biel went to the University of California at San Francisco, where he is continuing his research as a Ph.D. candidate. He also is working to improve his skills as a scientific communicator, both orally and in writing.

“Your findings don’t really have any impact unless they’re shared,” noted Biel, who was the recipient of OSU’s first Undergraduate Researcher of the Year Award.

The ability to communicate his discoveries — and his enthusiasm for scientific research — will be important in his future career. Biel’s ultimate goal is to become a college professor. “I had some really great mentors at OSU,” he said. “That’s something I want to be a part of and pass along what I’ve learned to others.”

–Updated from a story by Bennett Hall, Corvallis Gazette-Times