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Structure. 2004 May;12(5):831-8.

Heterogeneity and inaccuracy in protein structures solved by X-ray crystallography.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge, 80 Tennis Court Road, Cambridge CB2 1GA, United Kingdom.


Proteins are dynamic molecules, exhibiting structural heterogeneity in the form of anisotropic motion and discrete conformational substates, often of functional importance. In protein structure determination by X-ray crystallography, the observed diffraction pattern results from the scattering of X-rays by an ensemble of heterogeneous molecules, ordered and oriented by packing in a crystal lattice. The majority of proteins diffract to resolutions where heterogeneity is difficult to identify and model, and are therefore approximated by a single, average conformation with isotropic variance. Here we show that disregarding structural heterogeneity introduces degeneracy into the structure determination process, as many single, isotropic models exist that explain the diffraction data equally well. The large differences among these models imply that the accuracy of crystallographic structures has been widely overestimated. Further, it suggests that analyses that depend on small differences in the relative positions of atoms may be flawed.

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