That Science Blog Meme Thing Going Around

Something broke out of the picket-fence surrounding Nature Networks Blogs. I’ve never participated in a blog meme … but this one appealed to me simply because I liked the questions. I haven’t read anyone else’s answers yet, to avoid biasing my own.

1. What is your blog about?

I often ask myself this question. Being a scientist, I always feel like it should be about science, and the various biological systems I work with. I reality, it is about programming, bioinformatics, the web with the tiniest bit of structural biology thrown in. I used to blog about Linux related things occasionally, but I split that off into another blog (which gets 10 times more traffic :)).

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A “Web2.0 for Scientists Week”: signup-fest ?

So, here is my half-baked idea:

Why not have a special week where new online collaboration tools are promoted to scientists globally ?Silly logo Web2.0 for a Signupfest

Similar to the way local Linux user groups sometimes run “installfests” to install Linux for users, (just to get them over the initial interia), why not have a global “signup-fest” for the core set of online tools useful for scientific collaboration ? In each local area / University / Institute, a few Web2.0 savvy scientists could promote the event and hand-hold new users through the signup process, and help with basic usage and integration of tools. Ideally, lab groups could signup together in the same room, and make an event of it. Or in places with Wifi … a “bring your laptop” signup lunchtime event. I think you get the idea.
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Software review: producing two dimensional diagrams of membrane proteins

E. coli LamB, presented using TMRPres2D. Not that the cytoplasmic/extracellular labels are incorrect, and should say extracellular/periplasmic.

I recently needed to make a simple, two dimensional figure of a beta-barrel membrane protein. I went hunting for programs that might take a sequence and/or structure and produce a pretty looking diagram to save me constructing everything by hand. Here are two I found and tried.

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FoldIt – Crowdsourcing to solve the protein folding problem

David Baker’s lab and friends, have recently released a new ‘experiment’ in protein folding called FoldIt. Essentially, individuals or teams can compete online to manually fold protein structures, guided by the internal energy function within the game (it very likely uses code from the impressive ab initio folding software Rosetta under the hood). The interface is designed as a game to make it accessible to everyone, not just experts in protein folding. While it’s pretty simplified compared with your average molecular structure editing software, I think designers of scientific software (often scientists themselves) should take note; a good clean interface can really assist getting a specific job done painlessly. I haven’t played enough with it yet, but I get the feeling that FoldIt could be a nice way to introduce some protein structure concepts to undergraduates too.

There were the usual complaints on Slashdot that FoldIt doesn’t have a Linux version. Well, I’m happy to report that it seems to run alright using Wine (on Ubuntu Hardy Heron). I couldn’t log in to try the competitive puzzles, but I suspect the server is just in the midst of a Slashdotting. I’ll try later.

FoldIt screenshot, running under Wine

From the FoldIt FAQ:

Can humans really help computers fold proteins?
We’re collecting data to find out if humans’ pattern-recognition and puzzle-solving abilities make them more efficient than existing computer programs at pattern-folding tasks. If this turns out to be true, we can then teach human strategies to computers and fold proteins faster than ever!

Not sure where I saw it, but I remember reading an argument that the future of crowdsourcing would be to not just blindly trust the whole crowd, but also identify experts in the crowd and weight their predictions more strongly. I’d say this is will be the case with ‘manual’ protein folding – just like some players become l33t at first-person-shooters (like my favorite, RTCW: Enemy Territory which depsite enjoying, I’m not so l33t at), and could beat any AI player that doesn’t cheat… some people will probably become pretty good at folding up proteins. Maybe FoldIt will identify them, and they can make their gaming skills useful, and teach their tricks to software to automate the process. Or maybe it will just remain a fun-ish puzzle game 🙂


I see Lars Juhl Jensen has come up with a fun tag cloud of recently popular buzzwords in the biosciences. He calls it a BuzzCloud. The buzzword from the cloud I’ve noticed most lately is “Quantative Proteomics” … quantitation is a good goal for the field of proteomics to aim for, since IMHO it doesn’t really deserve the -omics prefix. “Omics” tends to imply the possibility of global proteome coverage, which proteomic studies rarely, if ever, achieve. But enough of the side-rants.

The way Lars’ BuzzCloud is constructed by extracting phrases ending in -ics, -ology, -omy, -phy, -chemistry, -medicine, or -sciences etc reminded me of a stupid little CGI application I wrote a few years back … the Biotech company name generator. When you take common prefixes like “Gene-“, “Pept-” or “Chemi-” and suffixes like “-omics” or “-agen” etc, it’s amazing how often Googling the name turns up a real honest-to-goodness biotech company.

Feel free to comment on any “biotechie” suffixes and prefixes that I should add … the hardcoded list in the script isn’t that long.