Students can see protein shapes with their mouths – a discovery that could help blind students understand their complex shapes when descriptions in books and on screens can be difficult to convey.

“One of the proteins we’re studying, hexokinase, bites sugar and adds a phosphate group to it – so it opens up and bites, much like Pac-Man,” explains Bryan Shaw of Baylor University in the United States. “We always teach students this with pictures, but here we’ve opened bite-sized models of the protein and closed the protein and tried to see if the students can see these structural changes with their mouths.”

In addition to gummy candies, which are mainly made from gelatin, the researchers have also made models from resin that can be sterilized in the autoclave and reused. They found that about 85% of the time, the students could identify the protein shapes in their mouth, which was roughly the accuracy of identifying the shape from a much larger hand model. Although the fingertips have a greater density of nerve endings than the tongue, they’re about as sensitive as the others because the tongue is much more flexible and agile, explains Shaw.

An image that shows a close-up of a person's mouth with a tiny transparent protein model between their teeth

The little sweets could make learning more inclusive for blind and visually impaired students. “My biochemistry textbook has 1,100 pictures and you can’t have 1,100 baseball sizes [handheld] Models of something, ”says Shaw. He hopes that the edible models can help them learn chemistry – a subject they are often denied because it is too difficult or dangerous to excel without good vision.

Shaw’s team is now working with students from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin to improve protein models and perhaps expand the range of bite-sized objects that can be identified by mouth to other types of molecules and other shapes as found in higher mathematics. They are also working to make chemistry labs more accessible to the blind and visually impaired “so they can actually do experimental chemistry with robots and accessible equipment,” says Shaw.

Chemist Mona Minkara from Northeastern University in Boston, USA, has been blind since childhood. She keeps a list of tools and techniques she uses in her scientific work, and the tiny protein models are unlike anything else, she says. “That’s great, it’s thinking outside the box, and it’s the kind of thinking that we need more of as we move forward.”

An image showing a row of pink and blue protein blobs spilling out of a nerds box

Minkara is in contact with Shaw and eagerly waits for the models to be delivered by post. “I’m really excited to see how much I can see of their structure when we get them.”

The idea that blind people shouldn’t do chemistry has little to do with the reality of work. “I am not a chemist at the laboratory table, I am a theoretical chemist, I model these proteins on the computer – but I was advised against this, although there is absolutely no danger,” says Minkara. “It is a detriment to the community to prevent people who have a love and passion for it from entering because if you do, you will limit the possible solutions.”

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