Heat Shock: Method & Explanation

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

What is heat shock? Read more to learn what happens when your body becomes overheated and cells need help to survive. Then take the quiz to see how much you've learned!

What is Heat Shock?

Have you ever been stuck outside on a really hot day and started feeling terrible? Or maybe you've had the flu with a fever that kept creeping up, and it made you feel lousy? This is your body reacting to heat shock.

Heat shock occurs when your cells are warmed past their optimal temperature (with humans that is approximately 98.6 deg F). A cell usually 'knows' its optimal temperature as the temperature it was developed at. When they are feeling stressed, cells send out an 'SOS,' calling in the help of heat stress proteins and activating the stress response.

The Heat Shock Response

All cells have a temperature range that encompasses their 'happy place.' They function properly in this range, but things go badly when they get too hot or too cold. When cells undergo stress due to changes in temperature, they begin to break down, and one specific side effect is an abundance of proteins that remained unfolded (under-developed). A protein's function is determined by its shape, and when unfolded proteins are near each other, they can begin to stick together, causing problems in the body.

When proteins are unfolded (left), heat stress proteins are activated to help guide the underdeveloped proteins through development (right)

A cell's immediate response to stress is to call in reinforcements! Heat stress proteins are a type of protein known as molecular chaperones, and their numbers multiply when they are called into action. Molecular chaperones guide proteins through development, making sure each step of the process occurs at the right time and in the right amounts.

There are different types (at least 5 'families') of heat stress proteins, and some are found in the cell all the time, even when conditions are optimal; however, some types of heat stress proteins are only made when they are summoned. These heat stress proteins are triggered by something called heat shock factors - when they are called into duty, three heat shock factors will bind together and become activated, becoming the main forces trying to counteract heat shock.

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