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Biochemistry researchers share their work with the public in crystallography's centenary year

Biological crystals( IUCr)

Biological crystals(© IUCr) (Click to enlarge)

X-ray crystallography has never had so prominent a place in the world.

The illustrious history of the field and its discoveries were celebrated by numerous events across the UK and elsewhere during 2014, the International Year of Crystallography ( Researchers from the department participated in several of these events. 

Jointly organised by the International Union of Crystallography (IUC) and UNESCO, the Year commemorated the centennial of the birth of X-ray crystallography, thanks to the work of Max von Laue and the Braggs father and son.

The award of the Nobel Prize to Max von Laue in 1914 recognised his work on copper sulphate crystals. He was the first person to discover that X-rays can be diffracted by crystals and observed the characteristic spots from these crystals.

Taking the work a step further, William and Lawrence Bragg discovered that X-rays could be used to determine the positions of atoms within crystals accurately. By formulating 'Bragg's Law', they gave researchers the tool to interpret the diffraction pattern of spots and generate a detailed picture of the three-dimensional structure of compounds. They received a Nobel Prize for this achievement in 1915.

In a field that has been showered with Nobel Prizes, 28 to date, 2014 also commemorated the 50th anniversary of a particularly notable one - that awarded to Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin for her work on vitamin B21. She remains the only British woman to have received a Nobel Prize for science.

Hodgkin, whose career began in the 1930s, made many key contributions to the field of crystallography. Her paper on pepsin, with Bernal, marked the beginning of protein crystallography. She followed this with the structures of increasingly complex compounds, with those of penicillin and vitamin B12 standing out in chemical and biological importance.

The International Year of Crystallography aimed to mark these and many other milestones in the field - from the discovery of the DNA double helix to groundbreaking work on graphene and the ribosome complex (around 280,000 non-hydrogen atoms). Through an incredible variety of activities including science fairs, exhibitions and professional-level training sessions, crystallography has been brought to life for many different audiences.

Several crystallography researchers from the Biochemistry department contributed to events marking a century of crystallography. Starting a busy year of activities, Professor Elspeth Garman (former President of the British Crystallographic Association) gave an evening public lecture at the University of Oxford's Museum of the History of Science in January on 'Mission Impossible - the crystallographic challenge of tuberculosis'.

IYC Logo

A few months later, she contributed an invited review to a special issue of Science entitled 'Crystallography at 100' (1). In the article, she charts the history of X-ray crystallography and looks ahead to how challenges may be overcome by developments such as room-temperature structure determination at synchrotrons, and the possibilities offered by x-ray free-electron lasers which could potentially enable the imaging of single molecules.

Both Elspeth and one of her DPhil students, Jonny Brooks-Bartlett, were involved with a programme of activities around the Museum of the History of Science's 'Crystals' exhibition in March.

At a sixth form study day on the Friday, they gave talks and carried out practical work with students including growing crystals of lysozyme and comparing these with crystals of bovine insulin. Jonny spent the following day delivering similar activities at a Family Day that attracted several hundred people.

He had an opportunity to communicate his passion for crystallography to even bigger audiences at the annual Big Bang Fair in March at the NEC, Birmingham - the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths for young people in the UK.

Jonny helping at the Museum of the History of Science Family Day

Jonny helping at the Museum of the History of Science Family Day

As a member of the British Crystallographic Association's Education and Outreach team, he helped on their stand showcasing the many areas and uses of X-ray crystallography. Over the course of the four days, the team introduced over a thousand people to different activities ranging from using laser pens and gratings to show diffraction, to demonstrating a Lego model of a diffraction experiment. Professor Mike Glazer, who co-developed the first cryostream cooler for crystallography experiments (now used routinely at every synchrotron worldwide), was also there helping out.

Jonny helped the BCA Education and Outreach team later in the year, this time to deliver these activities at the Cheltenham Science Festival to similarly big audiences.

Elspeth had several opportunities through the year to communicate her passion for crystallography on the radio. Jim al-Khalili interviewed her for his series 'The Life Scientific' which went out on Radio 4 in October ( The programme was subsequently broadcast on the World Service and to parts of the US via NPR. She received many emails from all over the world following this.

She also took part in interviews for Swedish Radio and for 'The Science Show' on Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio National.

One particularly captivating event during the centenary year explored crystallography as an art form in itself. The exhibition 'Illuminating Atoms' by photographer Max Alexander presented the work of crystallographers through portrait and documentary photography (

Illuminating Atoms

Illuminating Atoms

Hosted by the Royal Albert Hall, the exhibition sought to capture the beauty of crystals and to profile the scientists behind the work (see BBC News article - One of the crystallographers Max Alexander worked with was Elspeth Garman who was in charge of introducing the exhibition at a special Q&A event. Jonny Brooks-Bartlett was a subject of one of the portraits as well.

Elspeth, who was honoured to be introducing the photographs, says that she found them very interesting and added that that the exhibition served to 'open up a new set of people that might be engaged with crystallography and the science, just as we're engaging with the arts.'

Her sold-out talk began with the methods pioneered by the Braggs and discussed how their legacy lives on at the forefront of modern drug discovery. In a lighter vein, she included the seven different crystallographic forms of chocolate!

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dorothy Hodgkin's Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Somerville College ran a symposium together with UNESCO and the IUC. The event celebrated Hodgkin's remarkable achievements as a scientist, teacher and mentor, as well as a trailblazer in the field of crystallography.

The programme featured a talk by another Nobel Prize winning crystallographer Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and a panel discussion on using crystallography to help solve the world's great medical problems.

A number of Biochemistry department researchers were involved with the symposium. Associate Professor Matt Higgins helped to organise the event, and he, Professor Judy Armitage, and Elspeth Garman took part in the panel discussion. Head of Department Professor Mark Sansom provided advice and guidance for the event.

A still from the Oxford Sparks animation

A still from the Oxford Sparks animation

Generating on-line material about crystallography allows people to tap into information wherever they are. Elspeth and Jonny helped Oxford Sparks, a website for the public to engage with science taking place across the University, to make a new animation on crystallography.

'A Case of Crystal Clarity' is an excellent introductory animation to help non-specialists understand how crystallography works and why researchers use it ( Elspeth has found it such a good resource that she has been starting many of her talks with it. 'People get the general idea even if they don't understand the detail,' she says.

She also helped the Royal Institution put together 'Crystallography Collection', a series of animations and short films celebrating a century of crystallography. In 'Understanding Crystallography: Part One: From protein to crystal', Elspeth takes the viewer on the first part of the journey from a single crystal to the structure of a complex molecule. She talks about some of the tricks of the trade, key techniques, and the machines that help her team grow crystals ready for X-ray analysis at facilities like Diamond Light Source (

Professor Elspeth Garman

Professor Elspeth Garman in the Royal Institution film

Both Elspeth and Jonny are very positive about the events they took part in and the impact on themselves, the scientific community, and the wider public.

'The year has really raised the profile of the topic internationally and has resulted in lots of outreach and public engagement activities,' Elspeth says. 'There's a new energy and it has really benefitted countries where there is limited activity in the field. Some of the initiatives will undoubtedly be continued.'

The year's events have also given audiences an appreciation of how much X-ray crystallography contributes to many different areas of science. 'It's an aspect I particularly like, having to communicate to many different scientists,' she comments. 'I now appreciate that it is a critical technique that is necessary in many fields.'

Jonny, a relative newcomer to the field of crystallography and a very enthusiastic one, says that the year has had many beneficial effects including strengthening the sense of community.

'It was a brilliant year to get into the field for me,' he says. 'It's a very vibrant and friendly community and I really feel that we pulled together to put crystallography on the map as a major science. Organisations like the Royal Institution and Diamond Light Source contributed enormously and created documentaries and animations during the year. I think that really epitomises the impact and respect that X-ray crystallography has as a science in its own right.'

Equally important is the thrill of explaining his scientific field to the public, something he never seems to tire of. 'Mostly the people that we see at the stands have never heard of crystallography so it's always fun to show them what it is and how it impacts their lives.'


  1. Developments in X-ray Crystallographic Structure Determination of Biological Macromolecules. Elspeth F. Garman. Science 343, 1102 (2014)










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