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Scientists can now see exactly how thousands of proteins and other molecules are set up, and that’s exciting for a whole host of research, particularly in drug delivery. The new method to figure out the spatial structures of proteins — which have been incredibly difficult to visualize — relies on crystallizing proteins, or ordering individual molecules in a pattern that makes them visible under certain types of X-ray. Here’s what lead researcher and physicist Henry Chapman of DESY said about his research, published in the new Nature.

What’s the value of being able to see the structure of proteins?

Seeing the structure of proteins gives you a direct view of how nature’s molecular machines actually work. By seeing the proteins that coat the influenza virus, you can design a small molecule that can bind to it and mess up the machinery that allows it to enter a human cell. Then you have a drug against flu, such as Tamiflu.  The field of structural biology is a very important branch that gives us answers to a huge variety of biological questions, from DNA transcription to how to make drugs for hypertension or other diseases.

What’s the challenge in seeing that structure?

The biggest barrier in imaging a molecule [is that] the radiation you need to use to see it will damage and change the very structure that you are trying to see.  This damage is very severe and will completely disrupt the molecular structure.  The trick to get around this is to crystallize your protein. But getting proteins crystallized is really difficult and can take years of effort. Even after growing a crystal, it is often not perfect enough to give a strong enough scattered pattern [to see the structure].

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