Macromolecular crystallization in microgravity

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Abstract:

Density difference fluid flows and sedimentation of growing crystals are greatly reduced when crystallization takes place in a reduced gravity environment. In the case of macromolecular crystallography a crystal of a biological macromolecule is used for diffraction experiments (x-ray or neutron) so as to determine the three-dimensional structure of the macromolecule. The better the internal order of the crystal then the greater the molecular structure detail that can be extracted. It is this structural information that enables an understanding of how the molecule functions. This knowledge is changing the biological and chemical sciences, with major potential in understanding disease pathologies.

In this review, we examine the use of microgravity as an environment to grow macromolecular crystals. We describe the crystallization procedures used on the ground, how the resulting crystals are studied and the knowledge obtained from those crystals. We address the features desired in an ordered crystal and the techniques used to evaluate those features in detail. We then introduce the microgravity environment, the techniques to access that environment and the theory and evidence behind the use of microgravity for crystallization experiments. We describe how ground-based laboratory techniques have been adapted to microgravity flights and look at some of the methods used to analyse the resulting data. Several case studies illustrate the physical crystal quality improvements and the macromolecular structural advances. Finally, limitations and alternatives to microgravity and future directions for this research are covered.

Macromolecular structural crystallography in general is a remarkable field where physics, biology, chemistry and mathematics meet to enable insight to the fundamentals of life. As the reader will see, there is a great deal of physics involved when the microgravity environment is applied to crystallization, some of it known, and undoubtedly much yet to discover.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/0034-4885/68/4/R02

Publication date: April 1, 2005

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