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Celebrating crystallography - New video

Crystallography is the study of the arrangement of atoms that make up solids. It is the fundamental science that has paved the way for huge technological advances in the modern world, making our lives notably easier today.


Before crystallography, scientists and engineers could only guess the structure of materials and proteins. Now, to mark 100 years since discoveries which led to this science, the UN has declared 2014 as the International Year of Crystallography

Crystallography is a technique whereby X-rays, neutrons or electrons bounce (diffract) off matter in an ordered way to reveal its atomic structure. In the early days of crystallography the determination of a single structure was the work of many years; today computer programs can analyse this information to then construct a three-dimensional map almost instantly.

 The application of crystallography can be found almost anywhere in daily life. Technological improvements in a vast array of industries rely on basic information determined by crystallography. For instance, the structure of materials, such as those used in the building of aeroplanes, can be understood to help scientists make changes at the atomic level which lead to stronger, lighter, and safer aircraft.  

Crystallography allows scientists to understand the structure of materials such as those used in aircraft

Crystallography is everywhere.  It serves as a powerful analytical tool; not only in materials research, but also microanalysis of artwork, soil samples on Mars, as well as facilitating drug discovery and understanding the building blocks of life.

Dutch artist M.C Escher, famous for his drawings that played with three dimensional patterns and perspective to create visual paradoxes, incorporated some crystallographic principles into his artistic practice. He was invited to give a plenary talk to the international congress of crystallography in Cambridge in 1960, in which he stated:

“From the beginning of my investigations, the use of contrasting colours or shades was both self-evident and necessary in order to distinguish visually between neighbouring figures. I was therefore surprised to learn that the notion of antisymmetry has only recently been introduced into and accepted by crystallography. My own applications are unthinkable without the use of colour contrast.”

The study and application of crystallography has led to the award of over 20 Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine . In fact the first person to win a Nobel Prize in this field was German Physicist, Max von Laue, in 1914, for his discovery of the diffraction of X-rays by crystals. Soon after, father and son team, William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg undertook a sophisticated analysis of X-ray diffraction to determine the structure of sodium chloride. Their ground-breaking work won them the Nobel Prize in 1915.

The discoveries of von Laue and the Braggs soon spread to far-reaching corners of the globe, and influenced a wide range of scientific disciplines including physics, chemistry, mineralogy, metallurgy and medicine. It also led to the creation of new scientific fields such as biochemistry, molecular biology, materials science and engineering, and it facilitated cross discipline collaboration.

Structure of the Ribosome. Image: @IUCr

With the fundamental understanding of crystallography came the potential for new frontiers in science and medicine. Crystallography was famously used to determine the double-helix structure of DNA. Some other noteworthy Nobel Prize winners include the pioneer of protein crystallography, Dorothy Hodgkin, in 1964, among other things, solved the structure of vitamin B12 and penicillin ; Johan Deisenhofer, Robert Huber and Hartmut Michel, who in 1988, won the Nobel Prize for revealing the structure of the first membrane-bound protein; and in 2009 Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath were awarded the Nobel Prize for solving the structure of the ribosome.

The Bragg Institute at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) is named in tribute to Nobel Prize winners William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg. It leads Australia in the use of neutron scattering used in crystallography. At the centre of the research institute is the OPAL research reactor, along with state of the art neutron beam instruments, affectionately named after Australian fauna: KowariWombatEchidna and Koala.  

In addition ANSTO now operates the Australian Synchrotron, which produces extremely intense X-ray beams. Synchrotron light sources have revolutionised X-ray crystallography since the 1980s, and the Australian Synchrotron is now the centre piece of crystallography in Australia, with five of its nine beamlines dedicated to crystallography and atomic structure determination.

Crystallography is now commonly used in drug discovery. The detailed analysis of protein-ligand complexes allows scientists to design drugs to target certain molecules. The influenza drug, Relenza, is the first drug developed in Australia based on a protein crystal structure. The protease inhibitor that fights the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is another significant finding, which was developed using diffraction. It is regarded as a major success of structure-based drug design.   

hiv virus
Human Immunodeficiency Virus in 3D. Image: pit pitoca.

In exciting news, a new version of Relenza has been developed by Australian and international researchers at the Australian Synchrotron, which could stop the flu virus in its tracks. The drug prevents flu virus particles from detaching themselves from the surface of a cell and spreading to infect other cells, buying time for vaccines to be developed. The team of researchers used the Australian Synchrotron to obtain finely detailed information about how the drug interacts with the virus and were then able to use the information to improve the drug’s effectiveness.

To increase the public awareness of the science of crystallography and its contribution to our understanding of the very basis of life, UN has proclaimed the year 2014 the International Year of Crystallography, and given mandate to UNESCO and the International Union of Crystallography to facilitate its implementation.