A Beautiful Dance: A Conversation with Signal Maestro Dan Minor

By Jeff Miller

The dance of proteins is the major work of Dan Minor, PhD, an investigator in UCSF’s Cardiovascular Research Institute. Minor doesn’t actually choreograph the dance, of course, although he likes to inject a few changes in the routine now and then just to see what happens. No, what Minor does best is study the movements, particularly those of the ion channel proteins.

Photo of Dan Minor

Dan Minor

If studying ion channel proteins sounds like some nerdy passion for those with few social skills, cup your ears for a moment and listen to your heartbeat. That beat you hear is the dance and if the proteins responsible miss a beat or two and send your heart into arrhythmia, well, your dancing days might be over -- permanently.

Ion channels, which likely number in the thousands when you consider all the possible combinations, pivot around the flow of calcium, sodium and potassium in and out of cells – a flow that underpins the electrical signals that not only make our hearts beat, but our brains work. They are essential to hearing as well.

And did I mention speed? Electrical signals can pass from our brain to our toes in a few milliseconds.

It’s a dazzling display and one that, when studied with the right tools and strategies, yields an image of what the proteins look like as they move and change.

Will this knowledge mean more lives saved or fewer lives damaged? Possibly, Minor acknowledges. After all, the various molecular modules involved in signaling, once they are identified and their architecture mapped, are essential steps to understanding our chemical and electrical wiring. But they are not the whole ballet.

Still, if understanding the big questions about disease means first understanding the small points, then we should encourage this basic scientist to take a deep bow for his role in what is fast becoming a Minor classic.

Mainpage image is a detail of "Dance of the White Light Spectrum," ©2008 Philip Noyed - All Rights Reserved.

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