Characterizing metal-binding sites in proteins with X-ray crystallography

Nat Protoc. 2018 May;13(5):1062-1090. doi: 10.1038/nprot.2018.018. Epub 2018 Apr 19.


Metals have crucial roles in many physiological, pathological, toxicological, pharmaceutical, and diagnostic processes. Proper handling of metal-containing macromolecule samples for structural studies is not trivial, and failure to handle them properly is often a source of irreproducibility caused by issues such as pH changes, incorporation of unexpected metals, or oxidization/reduction of the metal. This protocol outlines the guidelines and best practices for characterizing metal-binding sites in protein structures and alerts experimenters to potential pitfalls during the preparation and handling of metal-containing protein samples for X-ray crystallography studies. The protocol features strategies for controlling the sample pH and the metal oxidation state, recording X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectra, and collecting diffraction data sets above and below the corresponding metal absorption edges. This protocol should allow experimenters to gather sufficient evidence to unambiguously determine the identity and location of the metal of interest, as well as to accurately characterize the coordinating ligands in the metal binding environment within the protein. Meticulous handling of metal-containing macromolecule samples as described in this protocol should enhance experimental reproducibility in biomedical sciences, especially in X-ray macromolecular crystallography. For most samples, the protocol can be completed within a period of 7-190 d, most of which (2-180 d) is devoted to growing the crystal. The protocol should be readily understandable to structural biologists, particularly protein crystallographers with an intermediate level of experience.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Binding Sites*
  • Crystallography, X-Ray / methods*
  • Metals / metabolism*
  • Protein Binding
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / metabolism*


  • Metals
  • Proteins