Researchers have, since 1988, been searching for a so-called "universal nucleant," that is, a material that will nucleate crystal formation, much as a grain of sand nucleates the formation of a pearl. Buried in the biophysics section of PNAS's January 6 Early Edition is linkurl:a somewhat esoteric paper; that may just end this search -- and open one of structural biology's most persistent bottlenecks, generating high-quality crystals for x-ray crystallography, in the bargain. "Nucleation is the crucial step that determines the entire crystallization process. Hence, the holy grail is to design a 'universal nucleant,' a substrate that induces the nucleation of crystals of any protein," Naomi Chayen and Emmanuel Saridakis, of Imperial College London, and Richard Sear, of the University of Surrey, write. The trio theorize that "mesoporous materials" -- that is, substrates with pores of varying diameters -- are likely to be most generally effective at nucleating protein crystallization....

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