Unlocking Molecular Secrets: Harnessing Mammalian Cell Lysates in Structural Biology


Structural biology explores the intricate architecture of biological molecules, offering insights into their functions and mechanisms. Among the various techniques employed in structural biology, X-ray crystallography, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, and cryo-electron microscopy stand out as powerful tools. Central to these methodologies is the preparation of high-quality protein samples, and mammalian cell lysates play a pivotal role in this process. In this blog post, we’ll explore how mammalian cell lysates play a key role in structural biology studies to purify and characterize proteins for these advanced techniques.

Understanding Mammalian Cell Lysates

Mammalian cell lysates serve as rich sources of proteins, containing a diverse array of molecules necessary for cellular function. These lysates are obtained by disrupting mammalian cells through mechanical or chemical means, releasing their contents into a homogenized solution. The resulting lysate contains proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and metabolites, providing a complex milieu for structural biology studies.

Purification of Proteins

One of the initial steps in structural biology studies involves isolating the protein of interest from the complex mixture present in cell lysates. Typically, this is achieved through protein purification techniques such as affinity chromatography, size-exclusion chromatography, or ion-exchange chromatography. Affinity chromatography, in particular, exploits specific interactions between the target protein and an immobilized ligand, allowing for highly selective purification directly from the lysate.

Characterization by X-ray Crystallography

X-ray crystallography is a cornerstone technique for determining the three-dimensional structure of proteins at atomic resolution. After purification, the protein of interest is concentrated and crystallized from the lysate. Next, crystallization transforms the soluble protein into a solid crystal lattice, which can diffract X-rays. By analyzing the diffraction patterns produced by these crystals, scientists study the spatial arrangement of atoms within the protein molecule, providing invaluable insights into its structure and function.

NMR Spectroscopy

NMR spectroscopy offers another avenue for probing protein structures in solution. In this technique, purified proteins from cell lysates are dissolved in a suitable solvent and subjected to NMR analysis. By measuring the interactions between atomic nuclei in the protein, NMR spectroscopy elucidates not only the overall structure but also the dynamics and interactions with ligands or other molecules. Therefore, mammalian cell lysates provide an abundant source of proteins for NMR studies.

Cryo-Electron Microscopy (Cryo-EM)

Cryo-electron microscopy is an emerging tool for visualizing biological macromolecules, including proteins, at near-atomic resolution. In cryo-EM studies, purified protein samples derived from mammalian cell lysates are rapidly frozen in vitreous ice, preserving their native structure. Subsequently, these frozen samples are then imaged using an electron microscope under cryogenic conditions. By combining thousands of individual images, researchers reconstruct three-dimensional models of protein complexes.


Mammalian cell lysates serve as indispensable resources in structural biology studies. Through techniques such as X-ray crystallography, NMR spectroscopy, and cryo-electron microscopy, scientists unravel the intricate structures of proteins. Analysis of these structures paves the way for advances in drug discovery, biotechnology, and our understanding of fundamental biological processes. As technology continues to evolve, the integration of mammalian cell lysates with cutting-edge structural biology techniques unlocks even more molecular secrets.

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