X-ray crystallography is the most widely used method to determine the structure of proteins, providing an understanding of their functions in all aspects of life to advance applications in fields such as drug development and renewable energy. New techniques, namely serial femtosecond crystallography (SFX), have unlocked the ability to unravel the structures of complex proteins with vital biological functions. A key step and major bottleneck of structure determination is protein crystallization, which is very arduous due to the complexity of proteins and their natural environments. Furthermore, crystal characteristics govern data quality, thus need to be optimized to attain the most accurate reconstruction of the protein structure. Crystal size is one such characteristic in which narrowed distributions with a small modal size can significantly reduce the amount of protein needed for SFX. A novel microfluidic sorting platform was developed to isolate viable ~200 nm – ~600 nm photosystem I (PSI) membrane protein crystals from ~200 nm – ~20 μm crystal samples using dielectrophoresis, as confirmed by fluorescence microscopy, second-order nonlinear imaging of chiral crystals (SONICC), and dynamic light scattering. The platform was scaled-up to rapidly provide 100s of microliters of sorted crystals necessary for SFX, in which similar crystal size distributions were attained. Transmission electron microscopy was used to view the PSI crystal lattice, which remained well-ordered postsorting, and SFX diffraction data was obtained, confirming a high-quality, viable crystal sample. Simulations indicated sorted samples provided accurate, complete SFX datasets with 3500-fold less protein than unsorted samples. Microfluidic devices were also developed for versatile, rapid protein crystallization screening using nanovolumes of sample. Concentration gradients of protein and precipitant were generated to crystallize PSI, phycocyanin, and lysozyme using modified counterdiffusion. Additionally, a passive mixer was created to generate unique solution concentrations within isolated nanowells to crystallize phycocyanin and lysozyme. Crystal imaging with brightfield microscopy, UV fluorescence, and SONICC coupled with numerical modeling allowed quantification of crystal growth conditions for efficient phase diagram development. The developed microfluidic tools demonstrated the capability of improving samples for protein crystallography, offering a foundation for continued development of platforms to aid protein structure determination.
- Microfluidic tools for protein crystallography
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by Bahige G. Abdallah