In the twelve years since styrene maleic acid (SMA) was first used to extract and purify a membrane protein within a native lipid bilayer, this technological breakthrough has provided insight into the structural and functional details of protein–lipid interactions. Most recently, advances in cryo-EM have demonstrated that SMA-extracted membrane proteins are a rich-source of structural data. For example, it has been possible to resolve the details of annular lipids and protein–protein interactions within complexes, the nature of lipids within central cavities and binding pockets, regions involved in stabilising multimers, details of terminal residues that would otherwise remain unresolved and the identification of physiologically relevant states. Functionally, SMA extraction has allowed the analysis of membrane proteins that are unstable in detergents, the characterization of an ultrafast component in the kinetics of electron transfer that was not possible in detergent-solubilised samples and quantitative, real-time measurement of binding assays with low concentrations of purified protein. While the use of SMA comes with limitations such as its sensitivity to low pH and divalent cations, its major advantage is maintenance of a protein's lipid bilayer. This has enabled researchers to view and assay proteins in an environment close to their native ones, leading to new structural and mechanistic insights.
Membrane proteins account for a third of the eukaryotic proteome, but are greatly under-represented in the Protein Data Bank. Unfortunately, recent technological advances in X-ray crystallography and EM cannot account for the poor solubility and stability of membrane protein samples. A limitation of conventional detergent-based methods is that detergent molecules destabilize membrane proteins, leading to their aggregation. The use of orthologues, mutants and fusion tags has helped improve protein stability, but at the expense of not working with the sequence of interest. Novel detergents such as glucose neopentyl glycol (GNG), maltose neopentyl glycol (MNG) and calixarene-based detergents can improve protein stability without compromising their solubilizing properties. Styrene maleic acid lipid particles (SMALPs) focus on retaining the native lipid bilayer of a membrane protein during purification and biophysical analysis. Overcoming bottlenecks in the membrane protein structural biology pipeline, primarily by maintaining protein stability, will facilitate the elucidation of many more membrane protein structures in the near future.