Harvesting and Cryo-cooling Crystals of Membrane Proteins Grown in Lipidic Mesophases for Structure Determination by Macromolecular Crystallography

Membrane Structural and Functional Biology Group, Schools of Medicine and Biochemistry & Immunology, Trinity College Dublin.
Journal of Visualized Experiments (Impact Factor: 1.33). 09/2012; 67(67). DOI: 10.3791/4001
Source: PubMed


An important route to understanding how proteins function at a mechanistic level is to have the structure of the target protein available, ideally at atomic resolution. Presently, there is only one way to capture such information as applied to integral membrane proteins (Figure 1), and the complexes they form, and that method is macromolecular X-ray crystallography (MX). To do MX diffraction quality crystals are needed which, in the case of membrane proteins, do not form readily. A method for crystallizing membrane proteins that involves the use of lipidic mesophases, specifically the cubic and sponge phases1-5, has gained considerable attention of late due to the successes it has had in the G protein-coupled receptor field6-21 ( However, the method, henceforth referred to as the in meso or lipidic cubic phase method, comes with its own technical challenges. These arise, in part, due to the generally viscous and sticky nature of the lipidic mesophase in which the crystals, which are often micro-crystals, grow. Manipulating crystals becomes difficult as a result and particularly so during harvesting22,23. Problems arise too at the step that precedes harvesting which requires that the glass sandwich plates in which the crystals grow (Figure 2)24,25 are opened to expose the mesophase bolus, and the crystals therein, for harvesting, cryo-cooling and eventual X-ray diffraction data collection.
The cubic and sponge mesophase variants (Figure 3) from which crystals must be harvested have profoundly different rheologies4,26. The cubic phase is viscous and sticky akin to a thick toothpaste. By contrast, the sponge phase is more fluid with a distinct tendency to flow. Accordingly, different approaches for opening crystallization wells containing crystals growing in the cubic and the sponge phase are called for as indeed different methods are required for harvesting crystals from the two mesophase types. Protocols for doing just that have been refined and implemented in the Membrane Structural and Functional Biology (MS&FB) Group, and are described in detail in this JoVE article (Figure 4). Examples are given of situations where crystals are successfully harvested and cryo-cooled. We also provide examples of cases where problems arise that lead to the irretrievable loss of crystals and describe how these problems can be avoided. In this article the Viewer is provided with step-by-step instructions for opening glass sandwich crystallization wells, for harvesting and for cryo-cooling crystals of membrane proteins growing in cubic and in sponge phases.

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    ABSTRACT: The crystal structure of the β(2)-adrenergic receptor in complex with an agonist and its cognate G protein has just recently been determined. It is now possible to explore in molecular detail the means by which this paradigmatic transmembrane receptor binds agonist, communicates the impulse or signaling event across the membrane, and sets in motion a series of G protein-directed intracellular responses. The structure was determined using crystals of the ternary complex grown in a rationally designed lipidic mesophase by the so-called in meso method. The method is proving to be particularly useful in the G protein-coupled receptor field where the structures of 13 distinct receptor types have been determined in the past 5 years. In addition to receptors, the method has proven to be useful with a wide variety of integral membrane protein classes that include bacterial and eukaryotic rhodopsins, light-harvesting complex II (LHII), photosynthetic reaction centers, cytochrome oxidases, β-barrels, an exchanger, and an integral membrane peptide. This attests to the versatility and range of the method and supports the view that the in meso method should be included in the arsenal of the serious membrane structural biologist. For this to happen, however, the reluctance to adopt it attributable, in part, to the anticipated difficulties associated with handling the sticky, viscous cubic mesophase in which crystals grow must be overcome. Harvesting and collecting diffraction data with the mesophase-grown crystals are also viewed with some trepidation. It is acknowledged that there are challenges associated with the method. Over the years, we have endeavored to establish how the method works at a molecular level and to make it user-friendly. To these ends, tools for handling the mesophase in the pico- to nanoliter volume range have been developed for highly efficient crystallization screening in manual and robotic modes. Methods have been implemented for evaluating the functional activity of membrane proteins reconstituted into the bilayer of the cubic phase as a prelude to crystallogenesis. Glass crystallization plates that provide unparalleled optical quality and sensitivity to nascent crystals have been built. Lipid and precipitant screens have been designed for a more rational approach to crystallogenesis such that the method can now be applied to an even wider variety of membrane protein types. In this work, these assorted advances are outlined along with a summary of the membrane proteins that have yielded to the method. The prospects for and the challenges that must be overcome to further develop the method are described.
    Biochemistry 07/2012; 51(32):6266-88. DOI:10.1021/bi300010w · 3.02 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Structure-function studies of membrane proteins greatly benefit from having available high-resolution 3-D structures of the type provided through macromolecular X-ray crystallography (MX). An essential ingredient of MX is a steady supply of ideally diffraction-quality crystals. The in meso or lipidic cubic phase (LCP) method for crystallizing membrane proteins is one of several methods available for crystallizing membrane proteins. It makes use of a bicontinuous mesophase in which to grow crystals. As a method, it has had some spectacular successes of late and has attracted much attention with many research groups now interested in using it. One of the challenges associated with the method is that the hosting mesophase is extremely viscous and sticky, reminiscent of a thick toothpaste. Thus, dispensing it manually in a reproducible manner in small volumes into crystallization wells requires skill, patience and a steady hand. A protocol for doing just that was developed in the Membrane Structural & Functional Biology (MS&FB) Group1-3. JoVE video articles describing the method are available1,4. The manual approach for setting up in meso trials has distinct advantages with specialty applications, such as crystal optimization and derivatization. It does however suffer from being a low throughput method. Here, we demonstrate a protocol for performing in meso crystallization trials robotically. A robot offers the advantages of speed, accuracy, precision, miniaturization and being able to work continuously for extended periods under what could be regarded as hostile conditions such as in the dark, in a reducing atmosphere or at low or high temperatures. An in meso robot, when used properly, can greatly improve the productivity of membrane protein structure and function research by facilitating crystallization which is one of the slow steps in the overall structure determination pipeline. In this video article, we demonstrate the use of three commercially available robots that can dispense the viscous and sticky mesophase integral to in meso crystallogenesis. The first robot was developed in the MS&FB Group5,6. The other two have recently become available and are included here for completeness. An overview of the protocol covered in this article is presented in Figure 1. All manipulations were performed at room temperature (~20 °C) under ambient conditions.
    Journal of Visualized Experiments 09/2012; 67(67). DOI:10.3791/4000 · 1.33 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: A simple and inexpensive protocol for producing crystals in the sticky and viscous mesophase used for membrane protein crystallization by the in meso method is described. It provides crystals that appear within 15-30 min of setup at 293 K. The protocol gives the experimenter a convenient way of gaining familiarity and a level of comfort with the lipidic cubic mesophase, which can be daunting as a material when first encountered. Having used the protocol to produce crystals of the test protein, lysozyme, the experimenter can proceed with confidence to apply the method to more valuable membrane (and soluble) protein targets. The glass sandwich plates prepared using this robust protocol can further be used to practice harvesting and snap-cooling of in meso-grown crystals, to explore diffraction data collection with mesophase-embedded crystals, and for an assortment of quality control and calibration applications when used in combination with a crystallization robot.
    Journal of Applied Crystallography 12/2012; 45(Pt 6):1330-1333. DOI:10.1107/S0021889812037880 · 3.72 Impact Factor
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