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Crystal Illumination

SLIPPERY MEMBRANESWhile research in structural genomics is receiving a giant boost from the automated devices on the market, one sector is still stumping even the best crystallizers: membrane proteins. The vast majority of drugs target membrane proteins, such as receptors, making crystallization of membrane proteins a priority, says Martin Caffrey, a structural biologist at the University of Limerick, Ireland. Yet current crystallization methods don't work for membrane proteins that have hydroph

The Scientist Staff

SLIPPERY MEMBRANES

While research in structural genomics is receiving a giant boost from the automated devices on the market, one sector is still stumping even the best crystallizers: membrane proteins. The vast majority of drugs target membrane proteins, such as receptors, making crystallization of membrane proteins a priority, says Martin Caffrey, a structural biologist at the University of Limerick, Ireland. Yet current crystallization methods don't work for membrane proteins that have hydrophobic membrane-embedded regions, which avoid the water that's central to the principles of vapor diffusion and microbatch.

So far, Caffrey has found that a combination of detergent, water, lipids, and protein can form a liquid-crystal phase, which he calls a cubic mesophase.1 Adding salt removes the water, forcing proteins to crystallize.

Now Caffrey's lab has automated the method, which requires finely manipulating microscopic volumes of a lipid/protein mesophase that is as viscous as toothpaste. The robot his lab...

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