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IUCrJ. 2015 Feb 3;2(Pt 2):246-55. doi: 10.1107/S205225251402702X. eCollection 2015 Mar 1.

Serial femtosecond crystallography: the first five years.

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Department of Biomolecular Mechanisms, Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Jahnstraße 29, Heidelberg 69120, Germany.


Protein crystallography using synchrotron radiation sources has had a tremendous impact on biology, having yielded the structures of thousands of proteins and given detailed insight into their mechanisms. However, the technique is limited by the requirement for macroscopic crystals, which can be difficult to obtain, as well as by the often severe radiation damage caused in diffraction experiments, in particular when using tiny crystals. To slow radiation damage, data collection is typically performed at cryogenic temperatures. With the advent of free-electron lasers (FELs) capable of delivering extremely intense femtosecond X-ray pulses, this situation appears to be remedied, allowing the structure determination of undamaged macromolecules using either macroscopic or microscopic crystals. The latter are exposed to the FEL beam in random orientations and their diffraction data are collected at cryogenic or room temperature in a serial fashion, since each crystal is destroyed upon a single exposure. The new approaches required for crystal growth and delivery, and for diffraction data analysis, including de novo phasing, are reviewed. The opportunities and challenges of SFX are described, including applications such as time-resolved measurements and the analysis of radiation damage-prone systems.


FELs; SFX; X-ray lasers; microcrystals; radiation damage; serial femtosecond crystallography; time-resolved crystallography

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