The Protein-Folding Problem, 50 Years On
The protein-folding problem was first posed about one half-century ago. The term refers to three broad questions: (i) What is the physical code by which an amino acid sequence dictates a protein's native structure? (ii) How can proteins fold so fast? (iii) Can we devise a computer algorithm to predict protein structures from their sequences? We review progress on these problems. In a few cases, computer simulations of the physical forces in chemically detailed models have now achieved the accurate folding of small proteins. We have learned that proteins fold rapidly because random thermal motions cause conformational changes leading energetically downhill toward the native structure, a principle that is captured in funnel-shaped energy landscapes. And thanks in part to the large Protein Data Bank of known structures, predicting protein structures is now far more successful than was thought possible in the early days. What began as three questions of basic science one half-century ago has now grown into the full-fledged research field of protein physical science.