19.12.2013 - Natural Sciences Sector

The world would be a different place today without crystallography

© IUCr, Bluetongue virus

‘If it were not for the discovery [of X-ray crystallography] 100 years ago, the world would look a very different place than it does now,’ commented Mike Glazer, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Oxford, on 12 December.

He was replying to a journalist’s question during the first press conference for the International Year of Crystallography, which gets under way with an opening ceremony at UNESCO headquarters on 20 and 21 January. The Year is being piloted jointly by UNESCO and the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr).

The virtual press conference was run by the IUCr, which is based in Chester (UK) and counts member unions in 53 countries. The primary aim of the Year is to generalize crystallography, which is currently practiced in only about 80 countries around the world, even though this fundamental science is essential for innovation and thus for socio-economic development.

As UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova remarked in her message (EN, FR, ES) to the press conference, ‘crystallography will be indispensable for nurturing the scientific innovation which all countries need for their sustainable development and to build greener societies and economies.’

The official film for the Year was screened for the first time at the press conference. The slick two-minute video recalled that crystallography permeates our lives. Examples of applications of crystallography succeeded one another: medicines, new materials, lasers, superconductors, jewels, cultural artefacts, jewels, cosmetics, foods, pigments, farming, green energy and space science and technology.

If we take the example of food forensics, we need look no farther than the horsemeat fraud which scandalized the UK and France earlier this year. Consumers discovered that they had been buying pre-prepared meals which contained not beef, as stated on the packaging, but horsemeat.

Food forensics uses a wide range of techniques to detect food fraud, including crystallography. Prof. Chris Elliott from the Global Institute for Food Security at Queen's University in the UK told the BBC’s Inside Science programme this week that ‘currently, we don’t know the degree of food fraud in the UK. The public analysis system has been in decline for many years and a lot of our testing goes overseas. We are starting to lose our scientific infrastructure in the UK.’

The International Year of Crystallography will be stressing that it is in the national interest for countries to maintain a strong endogenous capacity in crystallography.

‘It cannot be overstated just how important the subject is’, Prof Glazer told the BBC's Inside Science programme after the press conference. ‘You are surrounded by solid materials. Most of those materials you see are crystalline. What the Braggs and von Laue did enabled us to understand the atomic arrangement in all those solids. That's very important if you want to make new materials or if you want to understand how materials work.’

Prof. Glazer was referring to the three scientists to whom we owe the discovery of X-ray crystallography. ‘A century ago,’ recalled IUCr president Prof. Gautam Desiraju in his own message to the press conference, ‘it was found by Max von Laue in Germany that crystals diffract − in other words, that they bend X-rays − and this discovery was harnessed by W. H. Bragg and W. L. Bragg in the UK to obtain the internal structure of solids in terms of where atoms, ions and molecules are situated with respect to one another.’

The first structures to be determined by the Braggs were those of simple salt, followed by diamonds,’ recalled Prof. Glazer. Over the next century, increasingly complicated structures would be solved.

As to why structure is so important, science writer Georgina Ferry put it this way in her video message to the press conference. ‘All the materials of which the world and everything in it are made have the properties that they do because of their structure, the way that the atoms that compose them fit together in three dimensions. So, for example, diamond is very hard but graphite is very soft; and that's nothing to do with the elements of which they're composed − they're both made of carbon. It's just that the atoms of carbon in diamond fit together in a very rigid structure and those in graphite fit together in sheets, so that they can slide over one another.’

‘I'm not just talking about minerals,’ she added. ‘I'm talking about the molecules that make up human beings and every living thing. We've been able to study those, too, with X-ray crystallography.’ Moreover, there are still many challenges ahead. ‘We still really need to understand the structure of proteins,’ she observed.

Thanks to modern technology, crystallographers are now able to solve increasingly complex structures. Prof. Glazer recalled that, ‘crystallographers are now determining structures [of proteins and viruses] with thousands and thousands of atoms. This is possible because we have such brilliant X-ray sources and neutron sources.’ Thanks to the electron microscope, ‘we can see individual atoms for the first time.’

Today, ‘there is literally no branch of physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, mineralogy and structural and materials sciences that is untouched by crystallography,’ the IUCr President remarked.

Yet, despite its importance for scientific and social progress, crystallography remains a mystery to the general public and even to some scientists.

The International Year of Crystallography intends to remedy this. UNESCO and the IUCr are setting up a series of open labs in developing countries, for instance, to demonstrate how crystallography works to university students and their teachers, in partnership with private companies. The first open labs will be operational by early 2014 in in Argentina, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, South Africa and Uruguay.

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