A historical perspective on protein crystallization from 1840 to the present day
Protein crystallization has been known since 1840 and can prove to be straightforward but, in most cases, it constitutes a real bottleneck. This stimulated the birth of the biocrystallogenesis field with both ‘practical’ and ‘basic’ science aims. In the early years of biochemistry, crystallization was a tool for the preparation of biological substances. Today, biocrystallogenesis aims to provide efficient methods for crystal fabrication and a means to optimize crystal quality for X-ray crystallography. The historical development of crystallization methods for structural biology occurred first in conjunction with that of biochemical and genetic methods for macromolecule production, then with the development of structure determination methodologies and, recently, with routine access to synchrotron X-ray sources. Previously, the identification of conditions that sustain crystal growth occurred mostly empirically but, in recent decades, this has moved progressively towards more rationality as a result of a deeper understanding of the physical chemistry of protein crystal growth and the use of idea-driven screening and high-throughput procedures. Protein and nucleic acid engineering procedures to facilitate crystallization, as well as crystallization methods in gelled-media or by counter-diffusion, represent recent important achievements, although the underlying concepts are old. The new nanotechnologies have brought a significant improvement in the practice of protein crystallization. Today, the increasing number of crystal structures deposited in the Protein Data Bank could mean that crystallization is no longer a bottleneck. This is not the case, however, because structural biology projects always become more challenging and thereby require adapted methods to enable the growth of the appropriate crystals, notably macromolecular assemblages.