Gently Does It

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Science  07 Mar 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6175, pp. 1094-1097
DOI: 10.1126/science.343.6175.1094

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A technique for crystallizing fragile biomolecules without disrupting them is helping researchers probe the structures of some of the body's most important but elusive proteins: those that usher other chemicals through the cell membrane. To map a protein's atomic structure using x-rays, crystallographers have to coax its molecules to align themselves in crystals, like soldiers in perfect formation. That's difficult enough for ordinary proteins, which are complex, flexible molecules. But the membrane proteins—perhaps the most important molecules in biology—that straddle the cell's surface and control the chemical traffic in and out are an even bigger challenge. Lipidic cubic phase (LCP) has been essential for understanding them. Getting the LCP mixtures right and handling them is tricky, but now, thanks to decades of painstaking work by a small band of researchers, the technique is beginning to hit its stride.