A recent issue of Nature (443, 382, 28 September 2006, subscriber link) carried an intruiging article about Japan's five-year "Protein 3000" project, which is now winding down. Carried out under the auspices of RIKEN, the project was designed to use a large-scale NMR facility to solve the structures of at least 3000 proteins, and along the way advance the understanding of protein folding in solution.
Whether or not it succeeded depends on who you ask, because the answer isn't obvious. The project does seem to be on track to make its numerical goals, but according to the article, many protein-structure people think that a large number of the structures that have been solved are, well, junk - easy, closely-related ones that were put on the list to run up the numbers. While the organizers dispute that, as they certainly would, another problem is that understanding protein folding has turned out to be (you know what's coming) harder than expected. The project was supposed to cover a large swath of a hypothetical 10,000 different folds, but now the real number is thought to be two or three times that. So the best case was that Protein 3000 would have worked out about a third of all possible protein folds, but now they're looking at perhaps 5 to 10% of them.
The Japanese government has a real weakness for big programs like this. I think that Protein 3000 has been one of their biggest forays into that area, but in the past they've announced all sorts of gaudy projects in computation and the like, most of which haven't worked out quite as planned. The "Fifth Generation" project is perhaps the most abject failure of the lot, but at least that one seems to have produced a number of researchers who could do something else. But the Protein 3000 business has some folks worried:
Several researchers have also expressed concern that the factory approach at the NMR facility has deprived young researchers there of the skills necessary to solve more complicated and important scientific riddles. It might have "destroyed the next generation", says one.
(Kurt) Wüthrich, who helped plan the NMR centre in 1998 and was a science adviser in 2000-04, agrees that the facility is a wasted opportunity. "A centre of that size should contribute to methodology, but there has been nothing," he says. "It became a one-man show with 40 NMR machines - there is no knowledge."
Not a good review, considering it comes from a man who knows a bit about the use of NMR to attack protein structure. What I find instructive about such things is that these projects are often just the sort that large government-level granting agencies take it into their heads to fund. Sometimes they work out, but the majority of the time they don't.