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Structure. 2000 Mar 15;8(3):315-28.

The 'fingerprint' that X-rays can leave on structures.

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EMBL Grenoble outstation, Grenoble, BP 156, 38042, France.



Exposure of biomacromolecules to ionising radiation results in damage that is initiated by free radicals and progresses through a variety of mechanisms. A widely used technique to study the three-dimensional structures of biomacromolecules is crystallography, which makes use of ionising X-rays. It is crucial to know to what extent structures determined using this technique might be biased by the inherent radiation damage.


The consequences of radiation damage have been investigated for three dissimilar proteins. Similar results were obtained for each protein, atomic B factors increase, unit-cell volumes increase, protein molecules undergo slight rotations and translations, disulphide bonds break and decarboxylation of acidic residues occurs. All of these effects introduce non-isomorphism. The absorbed dose in these experiments can be reached during routine data collection at undulator beamlines of third generation synchrotron sources.


X-rays can leave a 'fingerprint' on structures, even at cryogenic temperatures. Serious non-isomorphism can be introduced, thus hampering multiple isomorphous replacement (MIR) and multiwavelength anomalous dispersion (MAD) phasing methods. Specific structural changes can occur before the traditional measures of radiation damage have signalled it. Care must be taken when assigning structural significance to features that might easily be radiation-damage-induced changes. It is proposed that the electron-affinic disulphide bond traps electrons that migrate over the backbone of the protein, and that the sidechains of glutamic acid and aspartic acid donate electrons to nearby electron holes and become decarboxylated successively. The different disulphide bonds in each protein show a clear order of susceptibility, which might well relate to their intrinsic stability.

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