Postgraduate Certificate: Principles in Protein Structure (PPS)

Prospective students

bullet Course overview
bullet Course details
bullet Syllabus
bullet Course fees
bullet How to apply

Related links

bullet MSc structural biology
bullet PPS course
bullet PX course
bullet TSMB course
bullet Commonwealth
bullet scholarships

Current PPS students
[Restricted access]

bullet 2009/10 course access
bullet 2008/9 course access


Distance learning: Principles of Protein Structure (PPS)

Postgraduate Certificate


This Postgraduate Certificate introduces the structure of proteins, and how that structure is related to both a protein’s sequence and its function.

The PPS course provides a background to the discipline of structural biology, and particularly to the structure of proteins. Students will learn:

  • How protein structures are built up
  • How their structure affects their function - and thus the processes common to all living things
  • How knowledge of protein structure has led to the development of drugs against diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS
  • How to use software to manipulate and explore 3D models of protein structure, and to view models of molecules in motion

Distance learning course

PPS is a distance learning course. All teaching is carried out via the internet. The only equipment required is a standard PC or workstation and an Internet connection.

Modular structure

PPS may be taken as a stand-alone postgraduate certificate or as part of the School of Crystallography's innovative distance learning MSc in Structural Molecular Biology.

The programme of study has a modular structure and operates under the Birkbeck Common Awards Scheme, one module being worth 30 credits. Students gain 60 credits on completion of the PPS Postgraduate Certificate. In order to gain an MSc in Structural Molecular Biology students must earn 180 credits.


Why study the principles of protein structure?

The origins of structural biology

Scientists first realised the potential value of understanding the structure of biomolecules over 50 years ago, when Jim Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin (who worked at Birkbeck from 1953-8) discovered the famous double helix of DNA. This laid the foundation for our understanding of the genetic code, and the development of molecular biology and biotechnology. But DNA is only the "instruction manual" for an organism. It is the many kinds of proteins that are encoded by the organism's DNA that perform most of the functions it requires to live.

Structural biology and the human genome

The human genome contains the code for about 30,000 different proteins. We now know the structures of several thousand of them, and can guess those of some others. This gives scientists a unique insight into the workings of the human body in health and disease.

One of the very first structures to be solved, haemoglobin, gave us a picture of how differences in protein structure lead to abnormalities in protein function and then to disease. This is the oxygen-carrying protein that is found in red blood cells. In people with sickle cell anaemia, one simple change in chemical structure on the surface of a haemoglobin molecule creates a "sticky patch" that leads to the haemoglobin molecules forming fibres, causing serious anaemia. This type of protein aggregation is very simple to understand. We are only now beginning to know enough about protein structure to understand how some other proteins can aggregate to cause even more devastating conditions including Huntington's and Alzheimer's diseases.

On completion of the PPS certificate, a student will be able to understand much of the molecular and structural basis of these and many other important biological processes. The complexity underpinning how cells protect themselves from stress and prevent proteins from misfolding, using proteins called chaperones, and molecular mechanisms for bacterial infection, are examples of processes that we highlight. These examples link the PPS coursework to the internationally recognised research of the School of Crystallography via, the work of, respectively, Professor Helen Saibil, FRS and Professor Gabriel Waksman.