Word of the day: Proteomics

Elizabeth Cooney, March 2nd, 2011 | Filed under

People who work at the Broad Institute are passionate about projects that connect basic biology to human health and disease. Sometimes when they see the Broad referred to as a “genomics institute,” they want to say, “Wait, there’s more!” That’s because they’d like everyone to know that genomics -- central as it may be -- is just the beginning of the story.

Take proteomics. While genomics is the study of all the genes in an organism and how they function -- including their role in directing how proteins are made -- proteomics takes that further. It’s the study of what those proteins are and what they do. As Jake Jaffe, assistant director of the Broad's Proteomics Platform, puts it, proteins are “the business end of genes.”

Far more numerous than genes, proteins are the machines in the cell, performing a remarkable array of functions. But a lot happens to them, too. They can be partially chopped up by other proteins, they can be shot out of the cell and become signaling molecules reaching other cells, and they can establish three-dimensional shapes in organisms. Proteomics is a logical extension of the Human Genome Project because its goal is to understand proteins and how they behave with one another.

Mass spectrometry is one tool scientists use to identify proteins in a sample by measuring their mass and other attributes. But the field has moved beyond just making lists of which proteins are present to characterizing how proteins change when they encounter different conditions.

Armed with that information, scientists can find out, for example, whether there are interactions between proteins and existing, FDA-approved drugs. Proteins can provide clues to how drugs work by revealing which cascade of cellular events is set into motion when drug and protein meet. Identifying a drug’s target and shedding light on the mechanism of a drug’s action may offer insights into potential therapeutic uses, or kindle further experimental inquiry.

That’s the power of proteomics.