On words, pictures and proteins

By writing about proteins, in both an interesting and accessible way, Protein Spotlight – SIB's blog linked to UniProt, the Universal Protein Resource – has engaged the scientific community for over 23 years. Here we find out how it all started, and how each story is built around a given protein.
On words, pictures and proteins

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In the year 2000, Professor Amos Bairoch – one of the founders of UniProt, the Universal Protein Resource – asked if I would be interested in writing up articles on proteins. I had worked with him as a curator for several years and he knew my penchant for words and popular science. It was an opportunity I was not going to miss. “What exactly are you thinking of?” I asked.

By then, Amos’ team – Swiss-Prot – was already feeding protein sequences and associated functional information into the database at a rate that was growing thanks to the ongoing progress of DNA sequencing technology. “I would like you to write about proteins for the scientific community, for those who use the database. I don’t want it to be demanding but rather something you’d choose to read over your morning coffee for example.” There was just one prerequisite: any protein I choose to talk about must be in UniProt, and its entry updated.

Besides the explicit wish to promote the databank, with hindsight, I realise that offering such articles was a way of instilling a human touch to the ever-growing algorithmic world of biocuration. The fact that my pieces were destined for the scientific community also came as a relief since it meant that I could slip words – like ‘enzyme’, ‘vacuole’, ‘RNA’ or ‘transcription’ – into my articles without having to explain their meaning, an act which invariably hinders the flow of a sentence, like driving your car over a series of potholes.

Over lunch one day, Amos gave me the essential editorial ingredients. “What I want you to describe is what the protein does, how it does it, and what happens when it goes wrong – if we know. You could also add a little on how it may have inspired the field of therapeutics.” These were my guidelines and, in twenty-three years, I have not changed them – not out of laziness but simply because there is little else to say, really, about any given protein. What I did do was add a little of my own seasoning: some history of research if it lends itself to the article, some artwork to illustrate the piece and an introductory paragraph that hopefully grabs the reader’s interest by describing something they can relate to.   

We created a blog and the first Protein Spotlight article was written in September 2000. It took a couple of years to find a style I felt comfortable with. Notably, I began by getting in touch with scientists whose research was based on the protein I was writing about. Besides the fact that I was not always at ease with such a procedure, I found myself moulding someone else’s thoughts into words. Also, the first illustrations I used were photos taken by labs or botanical engravings dating back to the 18th century, for example. It lacked personality. Gradually, I realised that I felt far happier writing what I like to call a story while using artwork to illustrate each piece.

Where do I find the information? Perhaps we should begin by asking how I choose the protein I am going to write about. I work for the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB)’ Swiss-Prot group, based in Geneva, Switzerland. Within the Swiss-Prot group are curators who frequently inform me about a protein, or family of proteins, they are annotating and which, they feel, could make a good story – although, I have come to realise that there is no protein that does not make a good story. It all depends on how you approach it.

I begin by looking at the articles referenced in the UniProt entry (an example from November’s Protein Spotlight issue) and read those likely to inform me on the protein’s role and 3D structure. I then search PubMed for reviews on the proteins. Reviews are usually good for giving a perspective on a given protein as well as an idea about whether it is used in agriculture, say, or in the fight against some form of disease. Sometimes, though far too rarely, I come across an article on the protein’s past: how it got its name, who discovered it and in what circumstances. I then turn to the unfathomable internet to see if I can find anything else of interest – an anecdote of some sort, links with folklore, photography, the life of an artist, you name it. Wikipedia, I must say, is a wonderful source of information of all kinds. Once I have digested all the information and let it decant, the story really writes itself. Questions tend to arise as I am actually composing the piece and I am fortunate to be able to ask members of the Swiss-Prot group, many of whom are specialized in proteins that belong to specific organisms (November issue).

Today, Protein Spotlight has thousands of readers worldwide, partially due to the fact that the blog is visible on UniProt’s homepage, which has an average of 3000 to 5000 visitors daily. Over the years, I have received wonderful messages of support. One researcher told me that my articles “enabled [him] to successfully marry IT with the Life Sciences” and he uses them to explain the concepts of molecular biology to bioinformatics students, while another biology teacher wrote to say that the articles are a “perfect starting point for students of Biological Sciences”. Such messages of support are endearing and particularly encouraging. Certainly, in twenty-three years, there have been times when I have lost heart and wondered whether it is not time to move on. But then I look back and realise that little by little, month by month, I have – quite unwittingly – sculpted a rather special edifice of information on the extraordinary world of proteins.

Sometimes losing heart may also be why the idea of comic strips came about. I have written plays about proteins for children. I have written tales about proteins for children. I write articles about proteins for the scientific community. But one slice of the population is always left out. A slice whose attention is difficult to grab: adolescents. I knew about a Swiss cartoonist – aloys lolo – whose style seemed ideal for the field of molecular biology and I got in touch with him. How would he feel about adapting some of the Protein Spotlight articles into comic strips? He was all for it. Alan Bridge, who is currently head of the Swiss-Prot group, was very supportive of the idea. So I searched for the funds to turn twenty of my articles into comic strips, both in English and in French. The project began in 2020 and ended in Spring 2023, and you can see the result here.

Comics, however, are easier to read on paper. Certainly, the online format set limits for the cartoonist who was forced to confine himself to the narrow borders of a strip. Last year, we presented our work to Antipodes a publishing house in Lausanne, Switzerland, who loved what we had done. As a result, a compilation of the French version of the comic strips has just been published – “Life, Love, Death & Proteins” – and regional media coverage has been uplifting. Hopefully, we will find editors interested in publishing an English version of our book too.

Top image is artwork by Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944) – “Composition 8, and is dated 1923.”.

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