Education Corner: 2007 New Jersey Science Olympiad
AN EXCERPT FROM THE DIARY OF INSU LIN
I have been diagnosed with diabetes Type I! The doctor told me I would
have to inject insulin into my body because I don't have enough. He also
gave me a pamphlet explaining insulin. This helped me realize how
important (and overlooked) this small hormone is in our bodies.
Insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas, regulates glucose levels. It is
comprised of two chains (α and β). When glucose levels rise, insulin is
secreted from the pancreas, and binds to receptors on the cell membrane
of glucose requiring cells. This causes transport proteins in the cell membrane
to take up glucose from the bloodstream. Essentially, insulin
initiates blood glucose homeostasis.
The three disulfide bonds in insulin are critical to its function - two of
which are between the two chains, while one is within the α chain. They
connect the two chains of amino acids that make the insulin and help
determine the tertiary and quaternary structure of insulin. If the chains
did not fold into their natural positions, the hormone would not function
properly, since the insulin molecule would not have the structure required
to bind to receptors. Therefore, insulin would not be able to function.
The sequence of amino acids is the primary structure of the protein.
According to the principles of protein folding, hydrophilic (polar) amino
acids are positioned on the exterior of the protein, while hydrophobic
(non-polar) amino acids are on the interior. If the primary structure was to
be altered by even one amino acid in the residues that bind to the insulin
receptor, insulin wouldn't fold into exactly the right shape. This would
inhibit the insulin's ability to bind to cell receptors.
The structure of insulin directly impacts the hormone function. If there
were to be any critical change in primary structure or disulfide bond
formation, the folding pattern of insulin could be altered. It would not
bind to cell receptors and thus not help manage cell metabolism.
I built an insulin model to better understand insulin and the nonpolar
amino acids (white tape) are in the center, and polar amino
acids (blue tape) surround them. As represented in my model, acidic
and basic amino acids remain close to neutralize each other. This is
shown in the central helix of the beta chain.
This excerpt is part of the abstract submitted by West Windsor-
Plainsboro's team - Aleesha Shaik, Linda Maa, Ilya Podkopaev - at
the regional competition. It has been edited slightly.
Science Olympiad tournaments, which take place across the country,
consist of a series of individual and team events that students prepare for
during the year. During this competition, teams demonstrate their diverse
skills and knowledge in many different events. In Forensics, teams identify
polymers, solids, and fibers at a crime scene, while in Write It, Do It, students
compose a description of a structure that will be the only guide used
by their other team members to recreate that structure (sight unseen) with
The judges use a model of the insulin structure and a rubric to help score the entries.
High school teams at the New Jersey Science Olympiad (NJSO) demonstrated
their understanding of structure and function in the 2007 Protein
Modeling trial events that were sponsored by the RCSB PDB.
In this event, students identify key elements of a structure and demonstrate
their knowledge of the protein by creating a three-dimensional
model using Mini-Toobers, computer visualization tools, and RCSB PDB
resources. The model is accompanied by a brief abstract that highlights the
features shown in their model and discusses what the protein does. At the
competition, teams also answer multiple choice and short answer-questions
focusing on its structure and function.
As one team described, the students enjoyed "replicating protein molecules
that are found in the body into real-life toober models".
The entries are judged by the RCSB PDB annotators using a model built
directly from the structure's PDB file and a predetermined rubric that
awards points for accurate depictions of the protein's features. For example,
judges look to see if the N- and C- terminus are labeled properly and
carefully consider the helices of the
model. They also consider if the
main functional and structural features
of the protein are described in
the written abstract. The written
exam asks questions based upon
the entry's Structure Summary
page, the Molecule of the Month
entry, and beyond. In 2007, teams
built an insulin structure (PDB ID
4hiu) for the regional competitions
held in January, and a section of a
major histocompatibility complex
(MHC) structure (PDB ID 1hsa) for the state competition in March. The
hand-built models were really impressive, and the written abstracts and exams
exhibited that many teams were quite scientifically literate.
The Mini-Toober kit (center) was transformed into a section of the MHC structure.
At the Central New Jersey regional, East Brunswick High School (First Place
and the 2006 State Champions in this event), West Windsor-Plainsboro South
High School (Second), and West Windsor-Plainsboro North High School
(Third) created very strong models.
At the Northern New Jersey regional, Bergen County Academy (First
Place), Westfield High School (Second), and New Providence High School
(Third) exhibited very strong skills.
At the state finals, students from all over the garden state competed.
The highest ranked teams were Princeton High School (First Place),
Montgomery High School (Second), and The Lawrenceville School (Third).
The Science Olympiad is an international
nonprofit organization devoted
to improving the quality of science
education, increasing student interest
in science and providing recognition
for outstanding achievement in
science education by both students
and teachers. The 2007 NJSO
presented by the New Jersey Science
Teachers Association and the New
Jersey Science Education Leadership
Association. Special thanks to the
Center for BioMolecular Modeling at
the Milwaukee School of Engineering (www.rpc.msoe.edu/cbm) for the
design of this event. Kits similar to those provided for this event may be
purchased from www.3dmoleculardesigns.com. Questions about the NJSO
Protein Modeling trial event should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A website with information and resources for participating in the protein modeling
event can be found at education.pdb.org/olympiad.
Northern New Jersey regional champions
Marina Mainescu, Benjamin Yang, and
Edward Hong of Bergen County Academy.
Central New Jersey regional champions
Leebyn Chong and Anthony Sin of East
Brunswick High School.
Ola Hadaya, Sarah Goodman, and Yong
Kim from Princeton High School.