X-ray crystallography enables details of covalent and non-covalent interactions to be analysed quantitatively in three dimensions, thus providing the basis for the understanding of binding of ligands to proteins as well as modes of action such as cell-surface binding. This article is concerned with current methods employed for the X-ray analysis of protein structures complexed with ligands. It deals mainly with ‘what can be done’ in current research, rather than providing details of ‘how to do it’. In recent years significant advances have been made in a variety of techniques: growing protein crystals from very small samples by scanning a wide range of conditions; X-ray intensity data collection and measurement through the use of charge-coupled devices and high-intensity, versatile synchrotron sources; cryo-crystallography which both stabilizes the crystals and provides improved data; methods for analysing and interpreting the structures, dependent, at least in part, on both structural and sequence databases; and improvements in hardware and software. To illustrate the type of results achievable two examples involving protein–sugar interactions are discussed: (i) SNAII (the lectin Sambucus nigra agglutinin-II from elder) N-terminal sugar-binding site where terminal sugar units in a glycosylation chain from a symmetry-related molecule bind and (ii) MLI (mistletoe lectin I) C-terminal sugar-binding site with lactose.

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