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Expert Opin Drug Discov. 2014 Feb;9(2):125-37. doi: 10.1517/17460441.2014.872623. Epub 2013 Dec 28.

The future of crystallography in drug discovery.

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University of Virginia, Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics , 1340 Jefferson Park Avenue, Charlottesville, VA 22908 , USA.



X-ray crystallography plays an important role in structure-based drug design (SBDD), and accurate analysis of crystal structures of target macromolecules and macromolecule-ligand complexes is critical at all stages. However, whereas there has been significant progress in improving methods of structural biology, particularly in X-ray crystallography, corresponding progress in the development of computational methods (such as in silico high-throughput screening) is still on the horizon. Crystal structures can be overinterpreted and thus bias hypotheses and follow-up experiments. As in any experimental science, the models of macromolecular structures derived from X-ray diffraction data have their limitations, which need to be critically evaluated and well understood for structure-based drug discovery.


This review describes how the validity, accuracy and precision of a protein or nucleic acid structure determined by X-ray crystallography can be evaluated from three different perspectives: i) the nature of the diffraction experiment; ii) the interpretation of an electron density map; and iii) the interpretation of the structural model in terms of function and mechanism. The strategies to optimally exploit a macromolecular structure are also discussed in the context of 'Big Data' analysis, biochemical experimental design and structure-based drug discovery.


Although X-ray crystallography is one of the most detailed 'microscopes' available today for examining macromolecular structures, the authors would like to re-emphasize that such structures are only simplified models of the target macromolecules. The authors also wish to reinforce the idea that a structure should not be thought of as a set of precise coordinates but rather as a framework for generating hypotheses to be explored. Numerous biochemical and biophysical experiments, including new diffraction experiments, can and should be performed to verify or falsify these hypotheses. X-ray crystallography will find its future application in drug discovery by the development of specific tools that would allow realistic interpretation of the outcome coordinates and/or support testing of these hypotheses.

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