Teaching structure: student use of software tools for understanding macromolecular structure in an undergraduate biochemistry course

Biochem Mol Biol Educ. 2013 Sep-Oct;41(5):351-9. doi: 10.1002/bmb.20718. Epub 2013 Sep 10.


Because understanding the structure of biological macromolecules is critical to understanding their function, students of biochemistry should become familiar not only with viewing, but also with generating and manipulating structural representations. We report a strategy from a one-semester undergraduate biochemistry course to integrate use of structural representation tools into both laboratory and homework activities. First, early in the course we introduce the use of readily available open-source software for visualizing protein structure, coincident with modules on amino acid and peptide bond properties. Second, we use these same software tools in lectures and incorporate images and other structure representations in homework tasks. Third, we require a capstone project in which teams of students examine a protein-nucleic acid complex and then use the software tools to illustrate for their classmates the salient features of the structure, relating how the structure helps explain biological function. To ensure engagement with a range of software and database features, we generated a detailed template file that can be used to explore any structure, and that guides students through specific applications of many of the software tools. In presentations, students demonstrate that they are successfully interpreting structural information, and using representations to illustrate particular points relevant to function. Thus, over the semester students integrate information about structural features of biological macromolecules into the larger discussion of the chemical basis of function. Together these assignments provide an accessible introduction to structural representation tools, allowing students to add these methods to their biochemical toolboxes early in their scientific development.

Keywords: molecular graphics and representations; protein structure and folding; undergraduate biochemistry.

MeSH terms

  • Biochemistry / education*
  • Macromolecular Substances / chemistry*
  • Molecular Structure
  • Software*
  • Students
  • Teaching / methods*
  • Universities*


  • Macromolecular Substances