Structural and morphological characterization of ultralente insulin crystals by atomic force microscopy: Evidence of hydrophobically driven assembly

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although x-ray crystal structures exist for many forms of insulin, the hormone involved in glucose metabolism and used in the treatment of diabetes, x-ray structural characterization of therapeutically important long-acting crystalline ultralente insulin forms has been elusive because of small crystal size and poor diffraction characteristics. We describe tapping-mode atomic force microscopy (TMAFM) studies, performed directly in crystallization liquor, of ultralente crystals prepared from bovine, human, and porcine insulins. Lattice images obtained from direct imaging of crystal planes are consistent with R3 space group symmetry for each insulin type, but the morphology of the human and porcine crystals observed by AFM differs substantially from that of the bovine insulin crystals. Human and porcine ultralente crystals exhibited large, molecularly flat (001) faces consisting of hexagonal arrays of close packed hexamers. In contrast, bovine ultralente crystals predominantly exhibited faces with cylindrical features assignable to close-packed stacks of insulin hexamers laying in-plane, consistent with the packing motif of the (010) and (011) planes. This behavior is attributed to a twofold increase in the hydrophobic character of the upper and lower surfaces of the donut-shaped insulin hexamer in bovine insulin compared to its human and porcine counterparts that results from minor sequence differences between these insulins. The increased hydrophobicity of these surfaces can promote hexamer-hexamer stacking in precrystalline aggregates or enhance attachment of single hexamers along the c axis at the crystal surface during crystal growth. Both events lead to enhanced growth of {hk0} planes instead of (001). The insulin hexamers on the (010) and (110) faces are exposed 'edge-on' to the aqueous medium, such that solvent access to the center of the hexamer and to solvent channels is reduced compared to the (001) surface, consistent with the slower dissolution and reputed unique basal activity of bovine ultralente insulin. These observations demonstrate that subtle variations in amino acid sequence can dramatically affect the interfacial structure of crystalline proteins.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1172-1179
Number of pages8
JournalBiophysical journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics


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