Protein Folding and Karaoke

In May, the Biophysical Society and the Korea Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) sponsored a meeting on membrane protein folding in Seoul, South Korea. To our knowledge, this is the first meeting ever devoted to the topic. While water soluble protein folding has been studied intensively and has been featured at literally hundreds of meetings over the past 50 years, biophysicists have largely turned a blind eye to membrane protein folding. Membrane proteins are simply more challenging to study as they reside in an extremely complex environment that is hard to mimic and manipulate. Moreover, the playground has been limited by the dearth of high resolution structures. Yet, techniques are now available to study the thermodynamics and kinetics of membrane protein folding, and crystallographers have provided an impressive collection of structures to marvel at. The time is ripe to attack this problem more vigorously and the meeting in Korea was devoted to providing a needed spark.

The meeting featured a mix of fundamental experimental and computational studies of membrane protein folding energetics and folding pathways. As membrane protein folding is so strongly influenced by bilayer structure, how bilayers and protein chains interact to structure each other was a prominent topic in many of the talks. Underscoring the practical importance of understanding membrane protein folding, techniques for stabilizing membrane proteins by manipulating the protein or the environment were featured. We learned about protein misfolding in disease and a method for controlling membrane protein insertion for targeted drug delivery. One session was explicitly devoted to bridging biological insertion and folding with biophysical studies. It was hard not to be excited by the progress, and implications of that progress, but also to be humbled by the complexity of problem.

The ending of the meeting was bittersweet. Jean-Luc Popot gave the final lecture of the meeting and announced that it would literally be the last lecture he ever gave at a meeting because he is retiring. Popot is a founding father of the field and one of its intellectual leaders. It is hard to imagine membrane protein folding without his insights. It does seem fitting, however, that his last lecture would be at the first meeting devoted to a field he played such a prominent role in building.

A highlight of the meeting was the social interaction. We got a chance to meet others in the field over tasty Korean food provided by the KIAS staff. The poster sessions were unusually lively and every night we met over wine and beer on the roof of the meeting site, with a beautiful view of Seoul. The view itself was certainly worth fighting off the jet lag for. There was also an opportunity to spend an afternoon either hiking in the surrounding mountains or visiting historic sites in Seoul with other membrane protein folders. Finally, we were treated to anamazing final banquet. And what visit to Korea would be complete without karaoke? After the banquet, some amazing talent or, if not talent, shall we say impressive enthusiasm, was on display at the karaoke machine. Most of us left well satisfied in mind and body and determined to get the membrane protein folding communitytogether more often.

The meeting's organizing comitteee members included James Bowie, University of California, Los Angeles, Karen Fleming, Johns Hopkins University, Jooyoung Lee, KIAS, South Korea, and Sanguk Kim, POSTECH, South Korea.

Jim Bowie, Co-Organizer

August 2013 Table of Contents