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Using the three-dimensional structure of biological macromolecules to infer how they function is one of the most important fields of modern biology. The availability of atomic resolution structures provides a deep and unique understanding of protein function, and helps to unravel the inner workings of the living cell. To date, 86% of the Protein Data Bank (rcsb-PDB) entries are macromolecular structures that were determined using X-ray crystallography. To obtain crystals suitable for crystallographic studies, the macromolecule (e.g. protein, nucleic acid, protein-protein complex or protein-nucleic acid complex) must be purified to homogeneity, or as close as possible to homogeneity. The homogeneity of the preparation is a key factor in obtaining crystals that diffract to high resolution (Bergfors, 1999; McPherson, 1999). Crystallization requires bringing the macromolecule to supersaturation. The sample should therefore be concentrated to the highest possible concentration without causing aggregation or precipitation of the macromolecule (usually 2-50 mg/mL). Introducing the sample to precipitating agent can promote the nucleation of protein crystals in the solution, which can result in large three-dimensional crystals growing from the solution. There are two main techniques to obtain crystals: vapor diffusion and batch crystallization. In vapor diffusion, a drop containing a mixture of precipitant and protein solutions is sealed in a chamber with pure precipitant. Water vapor then diffuses out of the drop until the osmolarity of the drop and the precipitant are equal (Figure 1A). The dehydration of the drop causes a slow concentration of both protein and precipitant until equilibrium is achieved, ideally in the crystal nucleation zone of the phase diagram. The batch method relies on bringing the protein directly into the nucleation zone by mixing protein with the appropriate amount of precipitant (Figure 1B). This method is usually performed under a paraffin/mineral oil mixture to prevent the diffusion of water out of the drop. Here we will demonstrate two kinds of experimental setup for vapor diffusion, hanging drop and sitting drop, in addition to batch crystallization under oil.


Moshe A Dessau, Yorgo Modis. Protein crystallization for X-ray crystallography. Journal of visualized experiments : JoVE. 2011(47)

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PMID: 21304455

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