“Structure of the Pandemic”

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The Story

“Structure of the Pandemic”
by Sarah Kearns
Structure, August 4, 2020

The Pitch

Dear Structure Editors,

Would you be interested in a (commentary/feature) article about how Covid-19 is altering the practice of scientific research and its dissemination? For this article, I would share an insider’s perspective and how and if accelerated research efforts are impacting, particularly, structural biology as a field.

In response to the pandemic, handfuls of researchers allowed to keep their laboratories open are working around the clock to understand everything they can about COVID-19. One such group of researchers, structural biologists, helps this endeavor by solving structures of biological molecules like proteins involved in viral infection. The 3D structures of proteins and protein complexes can be observed using tools like x-ray crystallography or cryo-electron microscopy. Results from these experiments (after a lot of data processing) produce experimental models that represent the shape of the biological sample, oftentimes at very high resolution. From there, the structure can be used to develop drugs or antibodies that will interact with the protein.

All this data has to be put somewhere and publishers, preprint servers, and databases have risen to meet urgent needs. Many researchers are publishing their work through bioRxiv, but many publishers are also hastily performing peer review. Structural biology databases are no different with many structures deposited in the Protein Data Bank (PDB) and Electron Microscopy Data Bank (EMDB) over the last few weeks and months. These rapid developments in virus-related knowledge and dissemination of this knowledge has vast implications on how scientific research is conducted (and are not immune to mistakes).

I have interviewed researchers from Argonne National Lab, the PDB, and structural biology labs to get a clearer sense of how this pandemic is altering the process of scientific research, especially as it pertains to data validation and transparency. Given the impact that structural biology has on the pharmaceutical industry and integrative sciences in general, there is a potential for bigger ripples.

I have written for Massive Science, press releases for eLife, and for my own blog, Annotated Science. I am also a graduate student studying cryoEM and as such have experience in this topic. Additionally, I have interned at the MIT Press developing open-access platforms so am particularly interested in how increased transparency can transform scholarship.

Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing back from you,


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