U. MINNESOTA (US)—Researchers have created a molecular image of a system that moves electrons between proteins in cells. The work could provide insights to minimize energy loss in other systems, from nanoscale devices to moving electricity around the country.

Details of the work are reported in the journal Science.

“Evolution has been fine-tuning electricity in organisms for a lot longer than humans have been using it,” says Carrie Wilmot, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. “We can learn a lot from nature about how to use it more efficiently.

“This new glimpse at how the body uses electricity could lead to nanotechnology to shrink electronic circuitry even further or a more efficient grid to provide power to homes and businesses.”

Energy generated by intracellular movement of electrons is the fundamental power source that enables humans to exist. As electrons move within cells, energy is channeled to create complex molecules, such as protein and DNA. These are the building materials that enable organisms to grow, maintain themselves, and store energy.

Wilmot’s images, obtained using x-ray crystallography, advance the effort to understand this process better.

“Obtaining a crystal structure of a complex cellular electron transfer system is like being behind stage at a magic show,” says Vernon Anderson, who oversees biochemistry grants at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “We have always known there was a trick, but now the Wilmot group has provided a unique view of how this extraordinary chemical feat is accomplished.”

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