to the world of Crystallography ...
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Why water boils at 100ºC and methane at -161ºC; why blood is red and grass is green; why diamond is hard and wax is soft; why graphite writes on paper and silk is strong; why glaciers flow and iron gets hard when you hammer it; how muscles contract; how sunlight makes plants grow and how living organisms have been able to evolve into ever more complex forms…? The answers to all these problems have come from structural analysis.
Max Perutz, July 1996 (Churchill College, Cambridge)
With the words pronounced by Max Perutz, we open these pages (*), a continuing work in progress, intended to guide the interested reader into the fascinating world of Crystallography, which forms part of the scientific knowledge developed by many scientists over many years. This allows us to explain what crystals are, what molecules, hormones, nucleic acids, enzymes, and proteins are, along with their properties and how can we understand their function in a chemical reaction, in a test tube, or inside a living being.
The discovery of X-rays in the late 19th century completely transformed the old field of Crystallography, which previously studied the morphology of minerals. The interaction of X-rays with crystals, discovered in the early 20th century, showed us that X-rays are electromagnetic waves with a wavelength of about 10 -10 meters and that the internal structure of crystals was regular, arranged in three-dimensional networks, with separations of that order. Since then, Crystallography has become a basic discipline of many branches of Science and particularly of Physics, Chemistry of condensed matter, Biology and Biomedicine.
Structural knowledge obtained by Crystallography allows us to produce materials with predesigned properties, from catalyst for a chemical reaction of industrial interest, up to toothpaste, vitro ceramic plates, extremely hard materials for surgery use, or certain aircraft components, just to give some examples of small, or medium sized atomic or molecular materials.
Moreover, thanks to Crystallography we discovered the DNA secrets, the genetic code. We can increase the resistance of plants against environmental damage. We are able to understand, modify or inhibit enzymes involved in fundamental processes of life and important signaling mechanisms taking place inside of our cells, like cancer. With the structural knowledge of the ribosome, the largest factory of proteins in our cells, we can design new antibiotics and modify their structure to improve the efficiency. We are learning from the structure of certain components of some viruses to fight bacteria that are highly resistant to antibiotics, and are able to unravel the subtle defense machinery that has been developed from these microorganisms, so that we will be able to fight them with alternative tools.
We may suggest you to start getting an overview about Crystallography, or looking at some interesting video clips collected by the International Union of Crystallography. Some of them can directly be reached through the following links:
(*) We endeavor to assemble these pages and offer them to the interested reader, but obviously we are not immune to errors, inconsistencies or omissions. We are very grateful to several readers who have helped us to correct some previously undetected small errors or that have improved the wording of certain parts of the text. For anything that needs further attention, please, let us know through Martín Martínez Ripoll.
These pages were announced by the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr), have been selected as one of the educational web sites and resources of interest to learn crystallography, offered as such in the commemorative web for the International Year of Crystallography, and suggested as the educational website in the brochure prepared by UNESCO for the crystal growing competition for Associated Schools (even in subsequent calls of this competition).
Martín Martínez Ripoll (1946- ) and Félix Hernández Cano (1941-2005+) were coauthors of these pages, and even in 2002 they produced an enigmatic PowerPoint presentation dedicated to draw students' attention to the beauty of the crystallographic world. This presentation, called XTAL RUNNER (totally virus free, but in Spanish) can be obtained from this link .... But, where are those glory days gone?
Some relevant hints:
"Crystallography-Cristalografia", by Martín Martínez-Ripoll (Department of Crystallography & Structural Biology), is protected under a Creative Commons Attribution + Noncommercial 4.0 International License.
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