The topic they took was a timely one: the history of the science of crystallography over the past 100 years. UNESCO has declared 2014 to be the International Year of Crystallography in recognition of the seminal discoveries that started the discipline, which were made almost exactly 100 years ago; a number of the most important discoveries of that century were made by scientists with links to Birkbeck.
The presenters divided the “century of crystallography” into two, with Barnes speaking first and covering the first 50 years. In giving his talk the title “A History of Modern Crystallography”, however, he recognised that crystals have been observed, admired and studied for many centuries. What changed at the beginning of the last century was the discovery of X-ray diffraction. Wilhelm Röntgen was awarded the first-ever Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of X-rays in 1896, but it was almost two decades before anyone thought of directing them at crystals. The breakthroughs came when Max von Laue showed that a beam of X-rays can be diffracted by a crystal to yield a pattern of spots, and the father-and-son team of William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg showed that it was possible to derive information about the atomic structure of crystals from their diffraction patterns. These discoveries also solved – to some extent – the debate about whether X-rays were particles or waves, as only waves diffract; we now know that all electromagnetic radiation, including X-rays, can be thought of as both particles and waves
Von Laue and the Braggs were awarded Nobel Prizes for Physics in 1914 and 1915 respectively, and between 1916 and 1964 no fewer than 13 more Nobel Prizes were awarded to 18 more scientists for discoveries related to crystallography. Petrus Debye, who won the Chemistry prize in 1936, showed how to quantify the thermal motion of atoms as vibrations within a crystal. He also invented one of the first powder diffraction cameras, used to obtain diffraction patterns from powders of tiny crystallites. Another Nobel Laureate, Percy Bridgman, studied the structures of materials under pressure: it has been said that he would “squeeze anything he could lay his hands on”, often up to intense pressures.
Scientists and scientific commentators often argue about which of their colleagues would have most deserved to win the ultimate accolade. Barnes named three who, he said, could easily have been Nobel Laureates in the field of crystallography. One, Paul Ewald, was a theoretical physicist who had studied for his PhD under von Laue in Munich, and the other two had strong links with Birkbeck. JD “Sage” Bernal was Professor of Physics and then of Crystallography here; he was famous for obtaining, with Dorothy Crowfoot (later Hodgkin) the first diffraction pattern from a protein crystal, but his insights into the atomic basis of the very different properties of carbon as diamond and as graphite were perhaps even more remarkable. He took on Rosalind Franklin, whose diffraction patterns of DNA had led Watson and Crick to deduce its double helical structure, after she left King’s College, and she did pioneering work on virus structure here until her premature death in 1958.
Barnes ended his talk and led into Moss’s second half-century with a discussion of similarities between the earliest crystallography and today, as now, you only need three things to obtain a diffraction pattern: a source of X-rays, a crystalline sample, and a recording device; the differences all lie in the power and precision of the equipment used. He demonstrated this with a “symbolic demo” that ended when he pulled a model structure of a zeolite out of a large cardboard box.
David Moss then took over to describe some of the most important crystallographic discoveries from the last half-century. His talk concentrated on the structures of large biological molecules, particularly proteins, and he began by explaining the importance of protein structure. All the chemistry that is necessary for life is controlled by proteins, and knowing the structure of proteins enables us to understand, and potentially also to modify, how they work.
Even the smallest proteins contain thousands of atoms; in order to determine the position of all the atoms in a protein using crystallography you need to make an enormous number of measurements of the positions and intensities of X-ray spots. The process of solving the structure of a protein is no different from that of solving a small molecule crystal structure, but it is more complex and takes much more time. Very briefly, it involves crystallising the protein; shining an intense beam of X-rays on the resulting crystals to produce diffraction patterns, and then doing some extremely complex calculations. The first protein structures, obtained without the benefit of automation and modern computers, took many years and sometimes even decades.
Thanks to Bernal’s genius, energy and pioneering spirit, Birkbeck was one of the first institutes in the UK to have all the equipment that was needed for crystallography. This included some of the country’s first “large” computers. One of the first electronic stored-program computers was developed in Donald Booth’s laboratory here in the 1950s. In the mid-1960s the college had an ATLAS computer with a total memory of 96 kB. It occupied the basements of two houses in Gordon Square, and crystallographers used it to calculate electron density maps of small molecules. Protein crystallography only “took off” in the 1970s with further improvements in computing and automation of much of the experimental technique.
Today, protein crystallography can almost be said to be routine. The first step, crystallising the protein, can still be an important bottleneck, but data collection at powerful synchrotron X-ray sources is extremely rapid and structures can be solved quite easily with user-friendly software that runs on ordinary laptops. There are now over 100,000 protein structures freely available in the Protein Data Bank (PDB), and about 90% of these were obtained using X-ray crystallography. The techniques used to obtain the other 10,000 or so, nuclear magnetic resonance and electron microscopy, are more specialised.
Moss ended his talk by describing one of the proteins solved in his group during his long career at Birkbeck: a bacterial toxin that is responsible for the disease gas gangrene (PDB 1CA1). This destroys muscle cells by punching holes in their membranes, and its victims usually have to have limbs amputated to save their lives. Knowing the structure has allowed scientists to understand how this toxin works, which is the first step towards developing drugs to stop it. But you can learn even more about how proteins work if you also understand how they move. Observing and modelling protein motion in “real time” still poses many challenges for scientists as the second century of crystallography begins.