Science and Technology

Crystals that grow best in space

M. Ramesh | Updated on: Mar 14, 2021

Pour hot distilled water into a beaker containing copper sulphate powder, and after two days you’ll find salt-like crystals at the bottom. Take one crystal and, using a string, leave it suspended in the copper sulphate solution for two months. You’ll find a nice blue large crystal that you can use as a jewel. Crystal growth is a branch of chemistry that is seeing intense research. You can make a crystal out of anything, including proteins.

Indeed, scientists have been wanting to grow protein crystals, to better understand the protein structure by shooting X-ray or neutron beams through the crystals. The problem is, gravity and convective forces interfere with the formation of protein crystals, and they don’t turn out to be good enough.

Then somebody suggested growing the crystals in space — microgravity doesn’t matter. So, in the last few years, scientists have been growing protein crystals in the international space station. Over there they make the crystals big enough for the beams to detect the locations of hydrogen atoms. They bring them back to Earth for study.

Crystals made in space are expected to bring about a breakthrough in drug discovery, because, elsewhere, scientists are making engineered proteins called ‘monoclonal antibodies’, which wrap themselves around substances that cause disease. With large crystals, scientists on the ground can use X-ray crystallography to determine how the protein is organised. Determining protein structures helps researchers design new drugs. The US space agency, NASA, is in the forefront of growing crystals in space. If you want a jewel made in space, tell NASA.

Published on March 14, 2021

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