The British Chemist Who Developed Protein Crystallography
Because the wavelengths of X-rays (10-10,000 picometers [pm]) are comparable to the size of atoms, X-rays can be used to determine the structure of molecules. When a beam of X-rays is passed through molecules packed together in a crystal, the X-rays collide with the electrons and scatter.
Constructive and destructive interference of these scattered X-rays creates a specific diffraction pattern. Calculating backward from this pattern, the positions of each of the atoms in the molecule can be determined very precisely. One of the pioneers who helped create this technology was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (see image below).
She was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1910, where her British parents were studying archeology. Even as a young girl, she was fascinated with minerals and crystals. When she was a student at Oxford University, she began researching how X-ray crystallography could be used to determine the structure of biomolecules. She invented new techniques that allowed her and her students to determine the structures of vitamin B12, penicillin, and many other important molecules.
Diabetes, a disease that affects 382 million people worldwide, involves the hormone insulin. Hodgkin began studying the structure of insulin in 1934, but it required several decades of advances in the field before she finally reported the structure in 1969. Understanding the structure has led to better understanding of the disease and treatment options.
X-ray crystallography is a technique, using X rays, to determine the atomic structure of molecules that have been crystallized. A technique for deducing molecular structure by aiming a beam of X rays at a crystal of the test compound and measuring the scatter of rays.
She advanced the technique of X-ray crystallography, a method used to determine the three-dimensional structures of biomolecules. Among her most influential discoveries are the confirmation of the structure of penicillin as previously surmised by Edward Abrahamand Ernst Boris Chain, and the structure of vitamin B12, for which she became the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
In 1969, after 35 years of work, Hodgkin was able to decipher the structure of insulin. X-ray crystallography became a widely used tool and was critical in later determining the structures of many biological molecules where knowledge of structure is critical to an understanding of function. She is regarded as one of the pioneer scientists in the field of X-ray crystallography studies of biomolecules.