Atomic force microscopy of crystalline insulins: The influence of sequence variation on crystallization and interfacial structure

Christopher M. Yip, Mark L. Brader, Michael R. DeFelippis, Michael D. Ward

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The self-association of proteins is influenced by amino acid sequence, molecular conformation, and the presence of molecular additives. In the presence of phenolic additives, Lys(B28)Pro(B29) insulin, in which the C- terminal prolyl and lysyl residues of wild-type human insulin have been inverted, can be crystallized into forms resembling those of wild-type insulins in which the protein exists as zinc-complexed hexamers organized into well-defined layers. We describe herein tapping-mode atomic force microscopy (TMAFM) studies of single crystals of rhombohedral (R3) Lys(B28)Pro(B29) that reveal the influence of sequence variation on hexamer- hexamer association at the surface of actively growing crystals. Molecular scale lattice images of these crystals were acquired in situ under growth conditions, enabling simultaneous identification of the rhombohedral Lys(B28)Pro(B29) crystal form, its orientation, and its dynamic growth characteristics. The ability to obtain crystallographic parameters on multiple crystal faces with TMAFM confirmed that bovine and porcine insulins grown under these conditions crystallized into the same space group as Lys(B28)Pro(B29) (R3), enabling direct comparison of crystal growth behavior and the influence of sequence variation. Real-time TMAFM revealed hexamer vacancies on the (001) terraces of Lys(B28)Pro(B29), and more rounded dislocation noses and larger terrace widths for actively growing screw dislocations compared to wild-type bovine and porcine insulin crystals under identical conditions. This behavior is consistent with weaker interhexamer attachment energies for Lys(B28)Pro(B29) at active growth sites. Comparison of the single crystal x-ray structures of wild-type insulins and Lys(B26)Pro(B29) suggests that differences in protein conformation at the hexamer-hexamer interface and accompanying changes in interhexamer bonding are responsible for this behavior. These studies demonstrate that subtle changes in molecular conformation due to a single sequence inversion in a region critical for insulin self-association can have a significant effect on the crystallization of proteins.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2199-2209
Number of pages11
JournalBiophysical journal
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics


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