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Proteins in the Stretch

Tugging at single molecules reveals their secrets

Imagine that one day, instead of folding your clean laundry, you just dump it on your bed and, to your amazement, your shirts, sheets, and towels start folding themselves on their own. A minute later, the disorderly mound has turned into a neat pile of perfectly folded items. Don't expect to see this outside of a Harry Potter movie, but something just as impressive happens all the time inside your cells. Long, chainlike protein molecules fold up spontaneously and flawlessly into predetermined shapes. There are thousands of kinds of protein in the human body, each with a unique shape vital to its task. Without the power of protein folding, activity in any cell would quickly come to a halt.

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