Creative Research Medal 2021
Zachary Wood, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and his team have challenged the longstanding structure-function paradigm in biology. In a 2018 paper published in Nature, Wood and graduate student Nicholas Keul reported results of experiments on the function of unfolded parts of proteins called intrinsically disordered segments. For 50 years, biologists believed that only the folded structure of proteins was important for function, and the unfolded portions were considered “junk segments” left over from evolution. But Wood and his team discovered that the unfolded segments harness entropy to produce a force that can alter the activity of the folded portion of a protein. This finding shows that disordered segments can be functional, and since the only requirement is a lack of structure, these segments are easy to evolve. Wood and his team have inspired new research initiatives worldwide and could reshape understanding of protein structure for decades to come.