Protein Crystal Analysis

The human body contains thousands of different proteins, which play essential roles in maintaining life. The structure of a protein determines the specific role that it plays in the human body. To learn how various proteins function, scientists construct computer models that reveal the complex three-dimensional structures of these large biological molecules. To solve a protein's structure, scientists must first crystallize the protein and analyze the resulting crystals by a process called X-ray diffraction. Precise measurements of thousands of diffracted intensities from each crystal help scientists map the probable positions of the atoms within each protein molecule.

A major bottleneck for the drug industry and research groups continues to be the inability to obtain high-quality, diffractable crystals of proteins for structure determination. Analysis of these crystals helps us better understand the nature of proteins, enzymes, and viruses, which could lead to the development of new drugs and a better understanding of the fundamental building blocks of life. With an improved understanding of the molecular structures and interactions of proteins, drug designers may be able to develop new drug treatments that target specific human, animal, and plant diseases. The microgravity environment of space currently produces most of the best quality protein crystals. The ideal crystal should be able to grow slowly in all directions without interference. Crystals grown on Earth are subject to sedimentation affect, uneven protein solution concentration, and a faster diffusion rate, which cause imperfections in the structure of the growing crystal (Figure 1-22). In microgravity, crystals are straighter and larger, without defects due to gravity-induced deformation.

Protein crystals are an important application area for drug design. The atomic structure of a crystallized protein can be determined from X-ray diffraction. This information allows a better understanding of its chemical interactivity. The higher the resolution, the better the analysis. Compared to a ground-based environment, the resolution of crystals grown in space usually increases from about a half to a full angstrom. This does not sound like much, but at molecular level, that is a huge increase in resolution.

Figure 1-22. Natural quartz crystals, here shown in duster, are the most common forms of mineral crystals.

Figure 1-22. Natural quartz crystals, here shown in duster, are the most common forms of mineral crystals.

Some experiments have been conducted on the Space Shuttle, although most are limited by the short duration of these flights. The ISS experiments will lead to studies influencing possible treatments for cancer, diabetes, emphysema, and immune system disorders.

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