Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Endorphin Molecule


The endorphins are a class of natural feel-good molecules produced in your body. Indeed, the name "endorphin" means "endogenous morphine," so you can also think of them as your own personal pain relievers. They're neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, though they're polypeptides instead of small molecules. When you compare the sizes of these two types of molecules, the endorphins are  comparatively bigger (about 10-20 times bigger!)

There are a few different kinds of endorphins. Beta-endorphin is perhaps the most well-understood, and it's also the biggest at 31 amino acids long and about 500 atoms. Alpha-endorphin is about half that size, at 16 amino acids long.

And it's the perfect length for a beaded necklace.

Endorphin Molecule Necklace

This necklace depicts the molecular structure of the alpha-endorphin molecule in a three-dimensional, completely chemically-accurate representation, all rendered entirely in beadwork down to the last atom.

The small hydrogen atoms are represented by clusters of silver seed beads, while the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms are represented by light aqua, emerald, and light purple (respectively) clusters of bicone crystals. The slightly larger sulfur atom is represented by a cluster of slightly larger golden shadow bicone crystals. Like its molecular namesake, this beaded alpha-endorphin necklace contains 120 hydrogen atoms, 77 carbon atoms, 18 nitrogen atoms, 26 oxygen atoms, and one sulfur atom. The bonds between each atom are represented by silver bugle beads; one for single bonds, and two for double bonds.

The choice of crystal and metal-plated beads is a nod to the field of “crystallography,” which is a scientific technique used to make crystals out of molecules in order to study their chemical structures. Therefore, this piece is a new twist on the term "crystal structure" :)

A New Way to Bead a Molecule

The wonderful thing about this design is that its techniques can be applied to create a beaded version of almost any organic molecule! The Morning Coffee Molecules design is great for beading flat molecules such as caffeine, which is composed mostly of "sp2" atoms which make the molecule flat. However, most organic molecules are made up of a combination of sp2 and "sp3" atoms, which have a tetrahedral, 3D geometry to their bonds. The thread paths in this technique mimic both of these geometries, and the piece retains its structure through thread tension without any glues or stiffening agents.

Like a real polypeptide, this necklace also retains some flexibility, allowing it to bend and fold in on itself. But most remarkably, the atoms in this necklace can rotate around each single bond, just like in a real molecule!

I've tested it with other peptides, sugars, and small molecules, and I'm continually amazed at how well it works with so many different kinds of compounds. I feel like I've only scratched the surface of all the possibilities of this design, and I see a whole line of beaded molecules in my future beading projects.

Bead Dreams Finalist

This piece made the finals in the Finished Jewelry category in the 2013 Bead Dreams Competition. If you're going to the show, check it out in the display cases next to the registration desk!

If you're not going to the show, you can see this piece and all the other Bead Dreams Finalists here, and you can also vote for your favorite for the People's Choice Award.


  1. Congratulations, Cindy! You are always a winner in my book! I absolutely love your necklace; it's gorgeous and so creative.

  2. I love your work Cindy.
    This would be perfect for any chemistry geek gal!


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