Crystallography – seeing molecules in 3D

An opportunity for Australia to be the world leader?

This year is UNESCO International Year of Crystallography

First published: 28/04/2014

Updated at: 23/04/2014 at 12:27 pm

It is 100 years since Max Von Laue won the Nobel Prize, for observing the diffraction of x-rays through a crystal.

Since then23 Nobel Prizes have been awarded in the area of crystallography (, the science that has allowed researchers to understand the atomic level 3D structure of complex molecules.

Crystallography has been crucial in establishing the molecular structure of biological molecules such as proteins and DNA.

By understanding protein structure and behaviour, we can begin to appreciate how each protein functions within a biological system. This not only helps understanding of fundamental biology, but provides a frontline defence for combating pathogens.

Shane Seabrook at CSIRO’s C3 facility said “Because it’s impossible to ‘see’ a single protein molecule through a regular light microscope, we use X-ray crystallography.

“To do this we need protein crystals. We still don’t know how to crystallise proteins a priori, so significant effort is spent screening chemical (e.g. pH) and physical (e.g. temperature) space to figure out how to achieve this. The screening has to be repeated for every single protein.

“The production of suitable crystals can require more than 10,000 unique experiments, and is widely appreciated to be the rate limiting step for protein structure determination. Together with our partner labs in America and Europe, CSIRO is working hard to make this process more efficient. We have set a goal to double the efficiency of this process within five years.

“Ideally, we will produce protein crystals suitable for analysis using diffraction techniques such as X-ray diffraction. In Victoria, we’re incredibly lucky to have a world class Synchrotron at Clayton.

“The diffraction patterns are interpreted using computer modelling to produce a 3D electron density map, enabling scientists to determine the molecular structure.

“I think it’s amazing, every step is visually outstanding – from the protein crystal to the X-ray diffraction pattern to the 3D atomic structure. Google some images for yourself.

“There’s still a vast number of biological molecules that have yet to be studied. Understanding their structure and function will strengthen our biosecurity, help us discover new pharmaceutical targets and subsequently develop breakthroughs in medical therapies and vaccines. I think Australia has an opportunity to be a world leader in this area,” he said

For VPTN facilities that may be able to help with crystallography or diffraction, visit

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