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Why proteins may help solve existential crises in healthcare, food security, and climate

20 April 2022

Written by Dr. Parag Mallick, Associate Professor, Stanford University, and Co-Founder and Chief Scientist, Nautilus Biotechnology

Dr. Parag Mallick, Associate Professor, Stanford University

Viral outbreaks, crop-destroying droughts, and excess atmospheric carbon dioxide have a common origin and a common solution – untangling the complex webs of biology driven by proteins, the building blocks responsible for the development, function, maintenance, and repair of every organism’s cells. Understanding how tens of millions of protein molecules work together to form the basis of life and give rise to thriving people and ecosystems will enable us to invent new technologies that address these global crises, make significant progress toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and build a healthier and more equitable world.

For decades, scientists have recognized the importance of the proteome, or the sets of all the proteins in an organism, but the proteomics field has lacked comprehensive methods to measure beyond 8-30% of the human proteome. Today, that’s changing. My research to accelerate the discovery of protein biomarkers in disease led me to seek and develop new innovations in proteomics. By fostering next-generation technologies, we seek to be able to routinely measure more than 95% of the human proteome and use the insights we derive to significantly improve the quality of human health.

The ability to catalog an individual patient proteome will provide physicians with a detailed molecular view of patient health, enabling earlier and more accurate diagnoses of diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, which occur when protein-driven processes break down. Using this data to inform the use of existing drugs, of which more than 90% target a protein, and develop new treatments to address the protein-based causes of such conditions, could lead to a significant increase in patient health and wellbeing.

In agriculture, regularly assessing the proteomes of crops for changes indicative of the presence of pathogens and stamping out infections early may enable farmers to preserve crop yields and increase agricultural productivity to levels needed to feed the world’s rapidly increasing population. Agricultural researchers may also leverage proteomics to identify strains of crops that not only withstand environmental challenges but thrive under the harsh conditions of a warming climate.

There is further opportunity in proteomics to develop novel plants and organisms that can protect the environment from a variety of ecological challenges, such as the creation of specialized bacteria that can break down nuclear waste and lock away the carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere.

Greater insight into proteins is needed to protect people around the world from disease, food insecurity, and the consequences of climate change. There is no limit to the questions that can be answered with the treasure trove of information that novel technologies and advances in proteomics will bring, and these insights will serve to accelerate the life sciences, provide a better understanding of how cells work, and move us closer toward a more sustainable existence. With the proteomic revolution upon us, the time is now to unlock the potential of the proteome and fuel fresh breakthroughs across fundamental science.
 


 

Science, technology and innovation can be catalysts for achieving the sustainable development goals.

In the context of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development, the CSTD Dialogue brings together leaders and experts to address this question and contribute to rigorous thinking on the opportunities and challenges of STI in several crucial areas including gender equality, food security and poverty reduction.

The conversation continues at the annual session of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development and as an online exchange by thought leaders.

 
CSTD Dialogue