Protein structure determination using an X-ray laser and nanocrystals. Credit: Petra Fromme, ASU.

A protein's three-dimensional structure can greatly aid research and drug development. But many proteins are too fragile or finicky to yield crystals big enough for X-ray crystallography. Now, researchers can avoid this problem by harnessing tiny nanocrystals. Blasted by ultra-brief pulses of an X-ray laser, the nanocrystals record a light-scatter pattern just before they vaporize. The technique even works for membrane proteins, which are attractive targets in the pharmaceutical industry and are difficult to crystallize. The work could impact fields ranging from medicine to clean energy.

Featured in the March 16, 2011, issue of Biomedical Beat.