Synchrotron Radiation as a Tool for Macromolecular X-Ray Crystallography: a XXI Century Perspective

Nucl Instrum Methods Phys Res B. 2021 Feb 15;489:30-40. doi: 10.1016/j.nimb.2020.12.016. Epub 2021 Jan 5.


Intense X-rays available at powerful synchrotron beamlines provide macromolecular crystallographers with an incomparable tool for investigating biological phenomena on an atomic scale. The resulting insights into the mechanism's underlying biological processes have played an essential role and shaped biomedical sciences during the last 30 years, considered the "golden age" of structural biology. In this review, we analyze selected aspects of the impact of synchrotron radiation on structural biology. Synchrotron beamlines have been used to determine over 70% of all macromolecular structures deposited into the Protein Data Bank (PDB). These structures were deposited by over 13,000 different research groups. Interestingly, despite the impressive advances in synchrotron technologies, the median resolution of macromolecular structures determined using synchrotrons has remained constant throughout the last 30 years, at about 2 Å. Similarly, the median times from the data collection to the deposition and release have not changed significantly. We describe challenges to reproducibility related to recording all relevant data and metadata during the synchrotron experiments, including diffraction images. Finally, we discuss some of the recent opinions suggesting a diminishing importance of X-ray crystallography due to impressive advances in Cryo-EM and theoretical modeling. We believe that synchrotrons of the future will increasingly evolve towards a life science center model, where X-ray crystallography, Cryo-EM, and other experimental and computational resources and knowledge are encompassed within a versatile research facility. The recent response of crystallographers to the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that X-ray crystallography conducted at synchrotron beamlines will continue to play an essential role in structural biology and drug discovery for years to come.