Protein Crystallization

NewsGuard 100/100 Score

Protein crystallization is an important tool to purify proteins as well as to demonstrate their chemical purity.

This process is essential for X-ray crystallography, a field which has contributed enormously to our understanding of atomic and molecular structure even at protein and nucleic acid level. These crystals help delineate the three-dimensional structure of complex macromolecules and their functions, as well as how they operate in the real world.


The crystallization of proteins is based on the careful combination of the supersaturated solution of the compound with precipitating or crystallization reagents under the right laboratory conditions to induce nucleation and growth of a protein crystal.


The following steps are followed to crystallize a protein:

Protein Characterization

At least a few milligrams of the protein need to be purified and then characterized by circular dichroism (CD) spectroscopy to study protein structure and activity, differential scanning fluorometry, dynamic light scattering which ensures low polydispersity, or ultracentrifugation. Protein stability in the presence of various additives and ligands must also be studied. This step is essential for the success of crystallography.

Protein Crystallization

This process is dependent upon physical and chemical laws, and is the result of precipitating a supersaturated protein solution. The inability to use high temperatures to achieve supersaturation of proteins is overcome by using other factors such as different types of salt in buffer solution, or using co-factors to increase the solubility of the protein. Precipitants in common use include ammonium sulfate and polyethylene glycol. Commercial premade screening solutions are used to find out the kind of conditions which favors protein crystallization. These conditions are then optimized to enable the growth of large pure crystals which can be subjected to X-ray crystallography.

The most commonly used methods for protein crystallization include hanging drop and sitting drop, both used with vapor diffusion methods.

International Space Station Protein Crystal Growth

Difficulties with Protein Crystallization

The sample needs to be prepared and purified with care and solubilized in the right buffer environment to produce crystals. The utmost purity and monodispersity possible is the aim of sample preparation.

Stability is another primary concern. Storage must pre-empt any deterioration in terms of conformational change or denaturation, oligomerization or any such change before or during the process of crystal formation.

Supersaturation is then achieved using the right combination of reagents, pH of the buffer, the right temperature, and excipients or additives. The protein molecules are encouraged to associate in an orderly manner without precipitation or phase separation, or disorderly aggregation. Once nucleation is induced appropriately, with adequate numbers, size and quality, the environment must be tended to restrict further nucleation and promote controlled crystal growth. One grown, the crystals need to be protected against physical or chemical damage.

Control of the system is essential to keep it pure, fully specified, and unchanged, from beginning to end. This prevents the introduction of impurities into the growing crystal and ensures that laboratory conditions are reproducible.

Unfortunately, this process depends upon a whole host of biochemical, physical, and chemical factors. This makes standardization of protein crystallization a vexing task, with the necessity of understanding the right mix of chemicals, the behavior of the protein in various phases, and the nucleation as well as growth of crystals. Robotic systems to deal with these processes automatically and precisely, in nanoliter quantities, have been developed for larger laboratories, but are often too expensive for smaller setups.

Protein crystallization thus remains an art and science which is still under construction. The growth of a crystal whose unit is a macromolecule composed of thousands upon thousands of atoms in complex arrangements in primary, secondary and tertiary structures, with various degrees of freedom possible to each atom, is necessarily a task which is still guided by empirical knowledge so far rather than established theory.



Further Reading

Last Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


Please use one of the following formats to cite this article in your essay, paper or report:

  • APA

    Thomas, Liji. (2023, July 24). Protein Crystallization. News-Medical. Retrieved on April 13, 2024 from

  • MLA

    Thomas, Liji. "Protein Crystallization". News-Medical. 13 April 2024. <>.

  • Chicago

    Thomas, Liji. "Protein Crystallization". News-Medical. (accessed April 13, 2024).

  • Harvard

    Thomas, Liji. 2023. Protein Crystallization. News-Medical, viewed 13 April 2024,


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
Post a new comment

While we only use edited and approved content for Azthena answers, it may on occasions provide incorrect responses. Please confirm any data provided with the related suppliers or authors. We do not provide medical advice, if you search for medical information you must always consult a medical professional before acting on any information provided.

Your questions, but not your email details will be shared with OpenAI and retained for 30 days in accordance with their privacy principles.

Please do not ask questions that use sensitive or confidential information.

Read the full Terms & Conditions.