Understanding the structure of proteins on the atomic level is crucial, particularly when it comes to designing drugs. Traditional x-ray crystallography techniques rely on large crystals, which are difficult to grow for complex proteins and susceptible to radiation damage. Also sometimes transferring the microcrystals from their growth medium to the sample chamber can cause damage.
Microfluidic techniques are used to allow the crystals to be grown directly on-chip with minimal intervention. A thin graphene layer improves the crystallography signal-to-noise ratio and acts as a barrier, protecting the protein crystals from dehydrating.
Introducing graphene into microfluidic devices can make it easier to study proteins at an atomic level. Devices that are thinner and interfere less with the measurements allow larger and more intricate protein structures to be resolved using techniques that rely on probing thousands of microcrystals. The use of graphene is described as ‘a beautiful and totally elegant way’ of minimising background scattering, enabling analysis of ever more complex protein structures.
This work is focused on the use of graphene for protein crystallography, we anticipate that this technology should find utility in a wide range of both X-ray and other lab on a chip applications. The group is now focusing on shrinking down the dimensions and increasing the complexity of the device, as well as studying the structure of proteins involved in programmed cell death.