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The thousands of proteins in the cells of an organism have intricate and disparate shapes and perform an enormous array of functions—from catalyzing reactions to forming rigid structures, from recognizing infectious agents to transmitting neural impulses. No wonder that biologists have been eager to understand the details of their structures. Solving the first protein structure, in 1957, took 22 years, but now, in the year 2002, the process has become increasingly automated, and nearly 20,000 protein structures are known. For the last 30 years the community of protein biologists has catalogued new structures in the Protein Data Bank, a freely accessible database. The PDB even includes the structures of complex entities, like entire viruses and the ribosome. Plans are underway to fill out the database with enough unique structures to provide a catalog of practically all possible protein formations. The progress in understanding the structural details of life has practical benefits, including rational drug design and the possibility of molecular engineering.
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