Scientists who crack protein structures and colleagues who want to decipher what these proteins do are on the verge of a watershed agreement that would usher structural biology into the genomic era. The carefully crafted guidelines are designed to make sure that no publicly funded team has an unfair advantage in working out the functions of unknown proteins.
Robotics and computer automation promise to transform structural biology into a high-speed effort, dubbed "structural genomics," in which researchers will churn out thousands of protein structures in the next 5 years. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) this fall plans to fund up to six structural genomics pilot centers to establish and test new, high-throughput structural biology techniques, and similar approaches are being adopted or considered in Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, and Germany (Science, 17 March, p. 1954).
This new effort raises a bone of contention. As with gene sequencing, many scientists want to use publicly funded structural data to figure out what these unknown proteins do as quickly as possible. NIH and other funding agencies don't want to freeze out biologists not associated with the centers. But immediate release of data flies in the face of the status quo; when a protein structure is submitted to a journal today, says Columbia University structural biologist Wayne Hendrickson, it's almost always accompanied by findings that allow scientists to make educated guesses about how the protein works.
To help resolve the issue, officials at NIH and Britain's Wellcome Trust last month brought some 50 leading protein specialists to the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in Cambridge, U.K., for a brainstorming session on how to release data quickly and fairly. In the agreement, which is about to be finalized, structural biologists will still make the call on when data are solid; they won't be allowed, however, to withhold a structure for the sake of determining its function.
As a compromise, researchers will be asked to publish their results--most likely in electronic format or as a brief summary in a specialized journal--within 2 to 4 weeks of finishing a structure. The burden will be primarily on funders to enforce the timelines.
With reporting by Michael Hagmann in Cambridge, U.K.