Mar 082017
 

The structure of biological macromolecules is critical to understanding their function, mode of interaction and relationship with their neighbours, and how physiological processes are altered by mutations or changes in the molecular environment.

Ideally, classical structural biology research should interface more with cellular biology, as it is crucial for the structural data obtained in vitro to be validated within the cellular or tissue context. A true cellular structural biology approach should allow macromolecules to be characterised directly in their native environment. Such an approach would guarantee the high significance of data obtained in vivo or in the cell with the high resolution of a structural technique.

In the Past decade, NMR spectroscopy has been applied to obtain structural and functional information on biological macromolecules inside intact, living cells. The approach, termed “in-cell NMR”, utilises the improved resolution and sensitivity of modern high-field NMR spectrometers and exploits selective enrichment of the molecule(s) of interest with NMR-active isotopes.

Since its inception, in-cell NMR has gradually emerged as a possible link between structural and cellular approaches. Being especially suited to investigate the structure and dynamics of macromolecules at atomic resolution, in-cell NMR can fill a critical gap between in vitro-oriented structural techniques such as NMR spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography and single-particle cryo-EM techniques and ultrahigh-resolution cellular imaging techniques, such as cryo-electron tomography.

In a topical review IUCrJ (2017), 4, 108-118 Lucia Banci and her co-worker Enrico Luchinat, both based at the University of Florence, summarise the major advances of in-cell NMR and report the recent developments in the field, with particular focus on its application for studying proteins in eukaryotic and mammalian cells and on the development of cellular solid-state NMR.

 

Mar 022017
 

Crystallography is the study of the crystalline state of matter. The meaning is contained in the etymology of the word: κρυσταλλογραφ[{\acute \iota}]α (krustallograpia) arising from κρ[{\acute \upsilon}]σταλλος (krustallos, `clear ice’) and γραφο (grapo, `I write’). The modern inter­pretation of this term is widely construed as `the study of crystals.’ Crystallography since the `Traité de Crystallographie‘ of René-Just Haüy (Paris, 1822) has been based on a direct space description of crystals. There are many ways to study crystals, for example, by optical, thermal, mechanical or diffraction techniques. The relationship between the crystalline state of matter and its ability to diffract waves of properly matched wavelength has played and will always play a special role in this area of research. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy has, however, from its earliest days, provided structural information on both periodic and amorphous compounds, ranging from specific inter­nuclear distances to complete structural models of complex materials and biomolecules. The term `NMR Crystallography’ presents a broad polysemy. To some, it represents a stand-alone structure elucidation method for single crystal, polycrystalline or amorphous compounds. For others, it is a source of additional structural information when compounds fail to yield crystals of sufficient quality or size suitable for single-crystal diffraction-based structure determination, or when powder diffraction patterns exhibit a too high degree of complexity for structure model elaboration. Some consider NMR, diffraction and modelling as a synergistic complementary set of methods. Others consider that the multiplicity of specific NMR experiments allows for the progressive build-up of topological sub-graphs of the crystal graph, and thus drives the structure model search. These are all established uses of magnetic resonance toward the investigation of the crystalline state.

The Commission on NMR Crystallography and Related Methods of the Inter­national Union of Crystallography was established at the Montreal General Assembly in August 2014. The commission envisions `NMR Crystallography’ in an even more expansive light, as being: the use of the spin degrees of freedom of the magnetic resonance phenomenon to study the crystalline state of matter. As NMR may also be applied to the liquid state, it may also be used to study crystal genesis. The increasing profile of NMR in the crystallographic community is also nicely evidenced by an inspection of the planned lectures and microsymposia scheduled for the 24th Congress & General Assembly of the Inter­national Union of Crystallography, to be held in Hyderabad (August 21–28, 2017).

The contributions to this special issue of Acta Crystallographica Section C serve as an excellent introduction to the power and scope of NMR crystallographic methods and applications. The issue begins with two insightful review articles, one from Stebbins and co-workers on looking at short-range order in paramagnetic samples, and one from Harris and co-workers on in-situ techniques for time-resolved monitoring of crystallization processes.

NMR crystallographic methods have proven to be popular in characterizing organic co-crystals, particularly those with an active pharmaceutical component. Three contributions explore this area. Brown and co-workers describe the application of advanced two-dimensional solid-state NMR experiments to elucidate the role of weak inter­actions in a co-crystal of two fungicides. Kerr et al. have applied related methods to determine the crystal structure of a co-crystal of naproxen with picolinamide. Vigilante and Mehta report their 13C solid-state NMR work on co-crystals of caffeine and theophylline.

It is important to point out that there are many flavours of NMR crystallography, and many applications combine the information available from many techniques to gain structural insights. The information obtained from X-ray diffraction is typically used to its full potential, in combination with the additional information obtained from NMR. Computational chemistry, often in the form of density functional theory (DFT) calculations, is also often incorporated to the refinement protocol to obtain final structural results in best agreement with all available data. For example, Szell et al. report on a combined NMR, X-ray and DFT study of halogen-bonded frameworks featuring nitro­gen-containing heterocycles. DFT also plays a key role, along with 14N NMR, in the report from Alonso and co-workers on inter­molecular inter­actions in AST zeolites. Laurencin and co-workers describe the prospects available via 25Mg and 43Ca NMR spectroscopy in low-coordination-number organo-complexes with the help of DFT methods. Mali reports on the ab initio crystal structure prediction of magnesium (poly)sulfides, and on how the calculated NMR parameters may be used to distinguish between possible structures.

Nishiyama and co-workers describe a beautiful example of the power of combining the information available from electron diffraction with that of NMR spectroscopy to report on crystalline polymorphs of organic microcrystalline samples. Inorganic aluminophos­phates and layered silicates are explored in eloquent and insightful contributions from Ashbrook and co-workers and from Brouwer et al. Finally, an excellent example of the application of NMR crystallography methods to a metal–organic framework is provided by Pourpoint and co-workers, wherein carbon–aluminum distances are measured using advanced techniques.

This collection of papers provides a broad perspective on the diversity of NMR crystallographic methods and applications. It may be useful to keep in mind some of the particular advantages of NMR methods, including, for example, their sensitivity to H-atom positions and weak inter­molecular inter­actions, and their capacity to characterize disordered and noncrystalline samples. The continuing advances in NMR technology, pulse sequence development and robust structure refinement protocols, which include data available from all available sources, all bode well for the future of this exciting field.

David L. Bryce and Francis Taulelle

Guest editors

 

Feb 102017
 

Diana Freire, PhD student, EMBL

When I was a student I never dreamed that one day I would be a scientist, but here I am! My name is Diana Freire, I am from Portugal and I am doing my PhD in structural biology at one of the world’s leading research institutes: European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

You may not know but 11 February 2017 marks the second United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and what better time than now to think about women in science and how we can make an effective and sustainable change to the number of women participating in science. You can learn more about the International Day here.

If you want to pursue a career in science, EMBL is a great place to do it. I have learnt so much here and I am definitely growing as a scientist and also as a person. I have been exposed to many different structural biology methods and had the honour of meeting many exceptional people – all of whom encouraged me to use X-ray crystallography in my study of a novel toxin-antitoxin protein complex from Mycobacterium tuberculosis and to unravel its mechanism of function.

Recently our scientific training and outreach officer Rosemary Wilson @rawilson80 encouraged me to take part in a story for Science News for Students (https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/). The article resonated with me immediately: “We need you! Are you a female-identifying person in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM)? We want to see you and hear your voice!”. I knew this was something I wanted to be part of. While brainstorming the article, I thought back to why as a student I had never considered a career as a scientist. I came to the conclusion that I had a problem identifying with the images of scientists that I saw in the media at that time – I do not look like them!

Since I was 19 years old, fashion has played a major part of my life. I did a modelling course, took part in several fashion shows and photo shoots, and also participated in two contests to be Miss Portugal. Meanwhile, however, I was also always focused on my studies. At first I hid my fashion activities from everybody at university, afraid of being judged. I felt I had to prove to my (mostly male) professors that I was not only a pretty face. Then, a few years ago, a treatment I was receiving for cancer meant I lost my hair; it also effected the shape of my body. I overcame the cancer, and the best part of it is that I lost the fear of showing everybody who I really am. I was able to be open about what I do and love. Fashion and science: some might think, two opposite worlds that cannot mix.

These thoughts and experience encouraged me to make a video about myself and other female scientists to be shared with everybody but mostly with other women. I wish I could have included even more of these amazing female scientists in it, together with their inspiring stories.

I hope women outside science and especially female students can watch this video and see we are like any other women. Women in science can still have a life inside and outside the laboratory. It is possible to make hard work and dedication compatible with life and still have success in both. Science needs women. So, please, if you are one, believe in your career, be hopeful and pursue your dreams.

Women are not a minority in science any more but we are still under-represented at the highest levels. The reasons for this do not seem to be related to performance but mostly to psychological barriers, peer pressure or even feelings of self-doubt: it is important to develop our self-esteem. The guidelines of this year’s United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science on the topic “Gender, Science and Sustainable Development: The Impact of Media” highlight the importance of raising the profile of women in science by supporting and inspiring each other.

The general message I want to cover with the video is about life: enjoy it as much as you can. Do what makes you happy, and follow your passions. Fight for your personal and professional goals, and do not let others’ opinions put you down. Life is too short and we only live once!

 

Feb 102017
 

Michele Zema, IUCr Outreach officer

How do you encourage youngsters to think about crystallography? Start from the beginning and let them grow a crystal!

Crystal growth is such an important subject that it should be considered as a science in itself. It has its own journals and even an international organization, the International Organization for Crystal Growth, which coordinates the activities of researchers involved in the field.

Crystallization is still one of the most powerful purification methods in chemistry, used frequently at both university and industrial levels.

There is a tremendous amount of theory behind the science of crystal growth, and more and more sophisticated methods have been developed to understand the ever increasing numbers of resultant crystal structures. These discoveries can lead to new or better understood materials and properties covering many inorganic, organic and biological substances including drugs, nanostructured phases and many kinds of materials such as semiconductors, superconductors, magnetic materials and so on.

Don’t forget growing a crystal is also a lot of fun!

To coincide with the celebrations for the UN International Year of Crystallography 2014 (IYCr2014) and with the aim of raising awareness about this growing discipline, the IUCr launched a worldwide crystal-growing competition for schoolchildren (categories 15-18, 11-15 and under 11), which has now reached its fourth cycle. It aims to introduce students to the exciting, challenging and sometimes frustrating world of growing crystals. Students are invited to record a video to convey their experience to a panel of experts. The winning contributions in each category receive ‘Young crystal growers’ certificates and medals.

The IUCr also provides schoolchildren and teachers with educational material (brochures, videos, etc.) to explain the basic concepts of crystals and crystal growth and the importance of crystallization techniques in many fields.

The winners of the 2016 edition have just been announced (watch the videos here) and the 2017 edition launched; the deadline for video submission is 19 November 2017.

At the IYCr2014 Closing Ceremony, it was reported that national crystal-growing competitions were taking place in at least 34 countries. This is great news but we would like to boost this number and encourage more schools to participate in the international competition, and for this we need your help. If you want to inspire youngsters in what may become a lifelong love of crystallography, please do not hesitate to contact me at mz@iucr.org.

 

Feb 102017
 

Synchrotron beamlines and their instruments are built to harness the photon beam power of synchrotron radiation (SR), which has special properties – ideally suited to providing detailed and accurate structural information that is difficult to obtain from conventional sources. The common modus operandi for such facilities is that users are allocated a short duration of beamtime, typically a few hours to a few days, in which to perform their experiments.

With technological advances in instrumentation, detection, computing power, automation and remote access, SR facilities are developing new modes of access, designed to increase speed, efficiency and throughput of user experiments, such as on the macromolecular beamlines at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source in the US and at the Diamond Light Source in the UK.

However, there are a class of experiments that are increasingly excluded by these developments, which nevertheless could greatly benefit from the application of SR. For example, some materials undergo very slow transforming reactions, while others take time to exhibit the effects of curing, ageing or repeated use. These processes can be subtle or take weeks to months or even years to either show gross manifestation or run to completion.

At present off-line processing with before and after SR measurements is the norm, but valuable structural information on growth, change and intermediate phases can be missed or indeed lost. There is therefore a clear need for a facility that allows slow processes to be studied.

In a recently published paper [Murray et al. (2017), J. Appl. Cryst. 50. doi:10.1107/S1600576716019750] scientists report on a new purpose built LDE facility, which has been designed to address the needs of a wide and diverse range of scientific investigations. The new facility takes the form of an additional specially constructed end-station to the existing ultra-high-resolution and time-resolved powder diffraction beamline (I11) at Diamond. The new end-station is dedicated to hosting up to 20 long-term experiments (weeks to years), all running in parallel.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of this new facility, commissioning results from two contrasting science cases are presented. In the first, the slow in situ precipitation of the hydrated magnesium sulfate mineral meridianiite from an aqueous solution was followed. The hydrated phase is believed to be widespread on the surface of Mars and was formed inside a specifically designed low-temperature cell. In the second study, the long term stability of the metal-organic framework material NOTT-300 was investigated. This is a potential supramolecular material for greenhouse gas capture. Initial results show that the facility is capable of detecting phase evolution and detailed structural changes and is well suited for many applied systems and functional materials of interest. The emergence of new science from ongoing experiments is expected soon.