Protein: Weird Science, Dandelions, and Dinosaurs

There is lots of talk about Protein these days. It is promised to us on cereal boxes, shouts its name from fitness bar packaging, and appears in bold font on those vacuum-packed single servings of beef jerky. The word has become almost a brand unto itself. But a protein is a mind-blowing chemical genie that is not so easily contained. When the talk is of Protein [singular], it sounds like a unified elemental force that inhabits the body and provides both Life and etched triceps. When the talk is of Proteins [plural], one imagines billions of little barbells swirling busily around at the cellular level, looking for a muscle to stick to.  As often happens, the Protein facts are weirder and more interesting than we can begin to guess.

Macro Bigshots

A protein is basically a large, crazily complex molecule with a personality disorder. And it has a hand in nearly all the processes that keep the physical body alive. It has so many skill sets it’s almost worrying, and muscle-mass building is just one of the bullet points in the protein’s crazy CV. “Are proteins a disease-attacking immune system thing? A chemical messaging service within the cells? A driver of metabolism? A cousin to DNA replication? A taxi cab for atoms that need a lift to another part of the body? The bricklayer that heals our broken body parts?”

Yes.


Proteins—they do a lot. And they’re macro big. In fact they fall into a category called Macromolecules. Huge and unwieldy protein molecules are made of thousands of tiny stringy bits called amino acids—which your grade school science teacher will have endlessly drummed into you as “the building blocks of life”.  It’s true—amino acids are It. Their having formed in primordial, storm-tossed oceans were the very beginnings of the mere possibility Life on Earth.

There are 20 amino acids essential to a living thing, each with its own unique three-letter code. To form a protein, thousands of these tiny amino acid strings connect end-to-end to make a long, long coded thread. And here’s where the multi-faceted protein gets its specific job description. What’s it going to be? An atomic taxi? A chunk of mortar for a broken bone?


Folding the Chemical Laundry

That depends. Based on the needs of the physical system—your body, this crazily long protein string begins to wad itself into the weird 3-dimensional shape that best suits its immediate chemical responsibility. That is, a protein at work is less a mystical energy force than a lumpy-looking snowball of sculpted amino acids. When the thousands of amino strings line up to make the protein, the order of their three-letter codes, plus the disposition of the Energy State around the protein string (think a length of yarn flapping in the wind), will tell the protein what 3D shape to fold itself into. This process of Protein Folding is completely critical to life, and key to the bizarre versatility of the protein macromolecule. And the protein-folding process does not leave a lot of room for error. Researchers now believe that even slightly botched protein shaping may be associated with some degenerative neurological conditions.

Perhaps most interestingly, apart from all this chemical magic, protein also makes up part of our “stuff”; our actual body mass, our physical substance. Skin, tissue, organs – we’re made of about 16% protein. Because we have to eat our essential amino acids, protein has another “macro badge”. Protein, Fats and Carbohydrates are called Macronutrients; foodstuffs you have to ingest in bulk to keep the body alive. Which gets us back to the front, so to speak.


Where Your Steak Gets Its Protein

Those 20 amino acids required of all living things? We only produce 11 of them in our otherwise wondrous bodies. The other 9—the Essential Amino Acids, as they’re called—are those amino acids we have to eat to acquire.

“Oh yeah. That’s why we need fortified cereal and sirloin steaks.”

Well, not exactly. The slab of beef you are presently smothering in off-brand steak sauce? That cow did not produce the protein you’re trying to gnaw out of it. Animals can’t produce the essential 9 amino acids. Remember?

BUT PLANTS CAN. AND DO.

That’s right. The plant kingdom produces ALL 20 amino acids necessary for life-producing protein—the essential aminos and the other ones. The leaves and sprouts and seeds and things that grow all around us—they do things a boxcar-sized cow can only dream about. Which makes your steak a fairly inefficient amino acid delivery system. By the time you’re getting the plant protein back out of the cow, it’s swaddled in fat, bundled with cholesterol—well, you get the idea.

Never mind that raising a cow in order to basically re-eat its vegetable diet sucks up finite resources like a black hole, and keeps the world’s one billion starving people hungry. The unfiltered protein you want is in the plant-based diet of the cow. And those plant-based amino acids are explosively pure. Consider the Elephant and the Brontosaurus; two vegetarians whose mass do not evidently suffer from a meatless diet.

A protein is a wildly complicated thing; a miracle, really. But knowing where to get your protein is neither complex nor a miracle. Plants, the broad foundation of the world’s food chain, are the protein bank that funds the whole living biosphere. And best of all, once we actualize that fact, there is plenty of protein to go around.


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