From Yahoo – (contributor)

Crystals of proteins that could be useful in medical research can be grown bigger and better in space than on Earth, according to the results of experiments performed on the International Space Station.

Medical research often focuses on examining how proteins work. That can include learning how to use proteins in medicines, or finding proteins that cause problems for humans and making drugs to fight them. A better understanding of a protein’s 3D structure can, for example, help scientists improve how well a medicine works, or find out the best ways to kill a germ.

To decipher a protein’s 3D structure, researchers often make the protein into a crystal (so it is frozen in a rigid pose) and then scan the crystals with X-rays or neutron beams. The larger and purer a protein crystal is, the better the chance that scientists can work out that protein’s 3D structure.

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Most of the more than 100,000 3D protein structures that scientists have collected to date have come from X-ray scans. However, these X-ray scans cannot detect hydrogen atoms, which make up about 50 percent of the atoms in these proteins and may play important roles in the protein’s activity. Neutron scans can determine the precise locations of these hydrogen atoms, but these require large protein crystals, which are difficult to grow. As such, fewer than 100 3D protein structures have been determined using neutron beams, said study lead author Joseph Ng, a biochemist and director of the Biotechnology Science and Engineering Program at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Previous research found that growing large pure crystals of protein is difficult on Earth because of effects arising from the planet’s gravity.

Image Credit: Larry DeLu

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