Do proteins evolve to take on new functions?

Biologist Douglas Axe on evolution’s ability to produce new functions

Conversations with Douglas Axe: What has been the response to your research?

After decades of study, scientists still do not know how to altar amino acid sequences that fold into functional proteins. This is called the protein-folding problem. The sequence of amino acids have to be so precise that if even a small part of this sequence is wrong, you get detrimental consequences.

The following is an extract of an article from the Khan Academy.

https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/macromolecules/proteins-and-amino-acids/a/orders-of-protein-structure

The sequence of a protein is determined by the DNA of the gene that encodes the protein (or that encodes a portion of the protein, for multi-subunit proteins). A change in the gene’s DNA sequence may lead to a change in the amino acid sequence of the protein. Even changing just one amino acid in a protein’s sequence can affect the protein’s overall structure and function.For instance, a single amino acid change is associated with sickle cell anemia, an inherited disease that affects red blood cells. In sickle cell anemia, one of the polypeptide chains that make up hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood, has a slight sequence change. The glutamic acid that is normally the sixth amino acid of the hemoglobin β chain (one of two types of protein chains that make up hemoglobin) is replaced by a valine. This substitution is shown for a fragment of the β chain in the diagram below.

What is most remarkable to consider is that a hemoglobin molecule is made up of two α chains and two β chains, each consisting of about 150 amino acids, for a total of about 600 amino acids in the whole protein. The difference between a normal hemoglobin molecule and a sickle cell molecule is just 2 amino acids out of the approximately 600.A person whose body makes only sickle cell hemoglobin will suffer symptoms of sickle cell anemia. These occur because the glutamic acid-to-valine amino acid change makes the hemoglobin molecules assemble into long fibers. The fibers distort disc-shaped red blood cells into crescent shapes. Examples of “sickled” cells can be seen mixed with normal, disc-like cells in the blood sample below.

The sickled cells get stuck as they try to pass through blood vessels. The stuck cells impair blood flow and can cause serious health problems for people with sickle cell anemia, including breathlessness, dizziness, headaches, and abdominal pain.