How proteins fold is a central mystery of the life process that for decades has eluded explanation. But biologists are getting help on the problem nowadays from physicists, who bring quantitative theorems and new technologies to the task of showing how one-dimensional amino acid sequences determine the three-dimensional shapes of proteins. Such knowledge could guide structure-based design of drugs to treat a range of diseases now thought to be caused by misshapen proteins.
"We're just beginning," says Stanford University's Steven Chu, cowinner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics, who has recently turned his efforts toward the protein folding question. "Everyone is just beginning. The interesting thing is, straight off, you see things you don't understand."