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Protein Crystallization

The process of forming a protein crystal from a protein solution. These crystals are then used to study the protein’s three-dimensional structure using techniques like X-ray crystallography.

Before proteins are in the crystalline state, they are typically in a dissolved state within a solution. In this state, the protein molecules are dispersed throughout the solvent (often water or a buffer solution) and are free to move around, though they might still maintain their native folded structure. The goal of protein crystallization is to transition these dispersed protein molecules from the solution into an ordered, solid lattice arrangement, forming a crystal. This transition is facilitated by finding the right conditions (e.g., concentration, pH, temperature, and presence of certain salts or other molecules) that encourage the protein molecules to come together and form this ordered structure.


  1. Before Crystallization: The protein is dissolved in the solution, and there are no solid particles. The protein molecules are dispersed uniformly throughout the liquid.
  2. During Crystallization: As conditions change (e.g., due to vapor diffusion), the solution becomes supersaturated with protein. This means there’s a higher concentration of protein than the solution can normally hold in a dissolved state. At this point, protein molecules start to come together and arrange themselves in an ordered, repetitive pattern, forming solid crystals.
  3. After Crystallization: The system consists of solid protein crystals suspended in the remaining liquid solution. The crystals are not merely solid particles; they have an internal ordered structure.


Purpose of Protein Crystallization


Protein crystallization is a pivotal technique in molecular biology, enabling scientists to visualize proteins at atomic resolution. This detailed view offers profound insights into various aspects of biology and medicine including

Protein Crystallization has never been easier

The OT-2 is a bench-top liquid handler designed to be accessible and flexible enough to automate many common applications.

Methods of Protein Crystallization


Vapor Diffusion

Overview: Vapor diffusion is a widely used method for protein crystallization that relies on the slow concentration of both the protein and the precipitant. As water evaporates from the protein solution to a reservoir solution, the protein and precipitant concentrations increase. Once the solution reaches supersaturation, crystals can form.

Setup: In both the hanging drop and sitting drop variations, a drop containing a mixture of protein solution and precipitant is placed in proximity to a reservoir containing a higher concentration of the precipitant. In the hanging drop method, the drop is placed on an inverted cover slip sealed over the reservoir. In the sitting drop method, the drop sits on a platform within a sealed well, above the reservoir.

Mechanism: Over time, water from the drop vaporizes and diffuses to the reservoir. This evaporation concentrates the protein and precipitant in the drop, promoting crystallization under favorable conditions.


Batch Crystallization

Overview: In this method, the protein and precipitant are mixed together directly, and the system is left undisturbed to allow crystals to form.

Setup: A solution of the protein is mixed with a solution of the precipitant in a single container.

Mechanism: As conditions within the mixture become favorable (often due to slow evaporation or due to the specific interactions between the protein molecules and the precipitant), protein molecules start to come together and arrange in an ordered manner, forming crystals.



Overview: This is a variation of the batch method but is designed for very small volumes and to prevent evaporation.

Setup: Small volumes of protein and precipitant are mixed together in a well. This mixture is then covered with a layer of oil (like paraffin or silicone oil) to prevent evaporation.

Mechanism: The oil layer ensures that the conditions within the drop remain stable over time. Without the influence of evaporation, the protein and precipitant can interact in a controlled manner, leading to crystallization under the right conditions.

Resource Spotlights

Opentrons helps you automate Protein Crystallization with open-source protocols for the OT-2 and Opentrons Flex

Why is Protein Crystallization difficult?


  1. Proteins are complex molecules with diverse surfaces, charges, and conformations.
  2. Finding the right conditions for a specific protein to crystallize can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
  3. Minor impurities can inhibit crystallization.
  4. Some proteins are inherently flexible or have multiple conformations, making them challenging to crystallize.


Benefits of Automation over Manual Pipetting for Protein Crystallization:


  1. Consistency and reproducibility: Automation reduces human error.
  2. High-throughput: Automation allows for the simultaneous testing of thousands of conditions.
  3. Efficiency: Automated systems can work around the clock, speeding up the process.
  4. Resource-saving: Using smaller volumes reduces the amount of precious protein samples required.
  5. Data management: Automated systems often come with integrated software solutions for data storage and analysis.

Want to know more?

Our team of experts can help figure out if automation is right for you. Book a virtual demo to discuss your workflow needs with an expert.