In the past, the calculations needed to interpret X-ray diffraction patterns and solve molecular structures were the most time-consuming part of crystallography. Now, X-ray technology is constantly improving, with better detectors and with beams that can be controlled with greater and greater precision, allowing researchers to analyze bigger and more complex structures. Computers now take less than a second to do the math that once took weeks by hand. These advances have made crystallography nearly limitless in its potential, Andre Hoelz says. Researchers can study as complex a system as they wish. “We pick a project and we make it happen,” he says.
To aid in their experiments, Caltech researchers have access to the Molecular Observatory, which includes an automated X-ray beam line at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory. The campus also has its own in-house macromolecular X-ray crystallography facility. The Macromolecular Crystallization Laboratory in the Beckman Institute provides automated and robotic facilities (yes, there are actual robots) to help researchers prepare their samples efficiently.
Such automated methods allow researchers to do experiments with much less sample material than before, and thus to solve more challenging problems. According to Bil Clemons, in the roughly 15 years since he started doing crystallography the amount of sample protein needed has dropped by about 20-fold. Still, preparing and crystallizing samples is laborious, and is the hardest part of crystallography today.
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Header Photo by Thomas Spatzal and Doug Rees