The science of structural biology is barely a hundred years old. Its origins lie in the discovery of X-ray diffraction early in the 20th century and its subsequent use to determine molecular structures.

Since then, there has been continuous progress and structural biology has had an immeasurable impact on science and medicine. The discovery of the structure of DNA is the most famous advance, which helped scientists understand how the cell mechanisms drive evolution through information transfer and how genes play a role in illness. There have been other key milestones, including the visualisation of haemoglobin and the first determination of an enzyme structure in the 1960s.

The advances in structural biology have been dependent on the technology available to scientists to study molecular structures. Synchrotrons were the first large-scale technology to have a major impact on structural biology, meanwhile nuclear magnetic resonance and electron microscopy joined X-ray diffraction in the structural biology toolbox. These three technologies, still the principal tools of structural biology, have been steadily improved by innovative scientists and are now immensely powerful. Work that might once have taken years can now be completed in just days or even hours.

Structural biology continues to have a significant impact on molecular medicine. The early drugs developed to treat HIV were structurally designed to stop the virus multiplying in the body. They were very effective until the virus mutated. New structure-based drugs to combat HIV are continually being developed. Tamiflu, which is used to treat influenza, is another example of a structurally designed drug.

Reaching this objective will require a new approach, based on integrating the methodologies and technologies that individually are not sufficient. Scientific researchers will need the knowledge and practical skills to harness the range of technologies available. They will be guided by the needs of the science rather than constrained to a single specialism. They will also seek to collaborate more broadly with colleagues with complementary skills.

The potential benefits of an integrated structural biology approach are huge. Properly developed integrated structural biology will allow European researchers, institutes and companies to remain world leaders. It will also drive further developments in medicine such as more effective screening of drugs. Ultimately, it will take us closer to meeting the grand challenges facing society; hunger, disease and ageing. At Instruct we are making integrated structural biology a reality. We hope you will join us.

A light for life: The impact of X-rays on structural biology and its pioneers

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