Structural biology is a field of the sciences which is concerned with the physical structure of macromolecules, literally “large molecules.” Macromolecules are of immense biological importance, playing a role in everything from passing on genetic inheritance to modulating immune system responses, and understanding how these molecules form can help researchers learn more about how they work. Biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics are all involved in structural biology.
Macromolecules form through a process known as polymerization, in which simple molecules known as monomers are assembled to create a larger three dimensional structure. The shape of the structure determines how it will work, and small variations in shape or composition can radically alter the functions of a macromolecule. Structural biologists look at how polymerization occurs, and what happens when errors emerge. They also connect errors with real-world problems, such as cancers which form when DNA is damaged, or diseases which disrupt the function of the macromolecules in the immune system.
Nucleic acids, proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids are all macromolecules. Researchers may opt to study the static structure of the molecules to learn how they are supposed to look under normal conditions, and they can also watch molecules assemble themselves through polymerization to watch the process as it happens. For example, protein folding, the process which is used to construct proteins, can be fascinating to study, and subtle variations in construction can be important to see in action.
Macromolecules may be large, but they aren't large enough to see without the use of specialized tools such as electron microscopy and crystallography. Structural biology involves a great deal of patient work in the lab with sophisticated equipment which is designed to help people visualize the structures they are studying. As a result, it can be quite expensive to maintain a structural biology lab and supporting staff.
People who are interested in structural biology as a career should plan on spending a lot of time in school, as many people in the field hold at least one doctoral degree. People can work in academic research settings, pharmaceutical labs, and science research facilities. Structural biology can be quite competitive, with a great deal of pressure on researchers to publish and to make breakthroughs in the field. Researchers can also opt to work on projects like developing the next generation of imaging equipment and techniques, applying structural biology skills to creating the equipment which will fuel further research and discovery.