Over the past 20 years a variety of technological advances in X-ray crystallography have shortened the time required to determine the structures of large macromolecules (i.e., proteins and nucleic acids) from several years to several weeks or days. However, one of the remaining challenges is the ability to produce diffraction-quality crystals suitable for a detailed structural analysis. Although the development of automated crystallization systems combined with protein engineering (site-directed mutagenesis to enhance protein solubility and crystallization) have improved crystallization success rates, there remain hundreds of proteins that either cannot be crystallized or yield crystals of insufficient quality to support X-ray structure determination. In an attempt to address this bottleneck, an international group of scientists has explored use of a microgravity environment to crystallize macromolecules. This paper summarizes the history of this international initiative along with a description of some of the flight hardware systems and crystallization results.
Image: Hexagonal by-pyramidal crystals of turnip yellow mosaic virus (TYMV)