Two types of amorphous protein particles facilitate crystal nucleation

Tomoya Yamazaki, Yuki Kimura, Peter G. Vekilov, Erika Furukawa, Manabu Shirai, Hiroaki Matsumoto, Alexander E.S. Van Driessche and Katsu Tsukamoto, 2017
Poseidon Select TEM holder tip
Image courtesy of PNAS


Nucleation, the primary step in crystallization, dictates the number of crystals, the distribution of their sizes, the polymorph selection, and other crucial properties of the crystal population. We used time-resolved liquid-cell transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to perform an in situ examination of the nucleation of lysozyme crystals. Our TEM images revealed that mesoscopic clusters, which are similar to those previously assumed to consist of a dense liquid and serve as nucleation precursors, are actually amorphous solid particles (ASPs) and act only as heterogeneous nucleation sites. Crystalline phases never form inside them. We demonstrate that a crystal appears within a noncrystalline particle assembling lysozyme on an ASP or a container wall, highlighting the role of heterogeneous nucleation. These findings represent a significant departure from the existing formulation of the two-step nucleation mechanism while reaffirming the role of noncrystalline particles. The insights gained may have significant implications in areas that rely on the production of protein crystals, such as structural biology, pharmacy, and biophysics, and for the fundamental understanding of crystallization mechanisms.

Impact Statement

In situ observation of protein crystallization mechanisms using LC-TEM. The nucleation step of crystallization processes determine the resulting crystal structure. Researchers were able to observe that mesoscopic clusters are amorphous solid particles that act as heterogenous nucleation sites.