Discovering Life's Structure

Uncover the story of science visionary JD Bernal and the revolutionary X-ray crystallography techniques developed at Birkbeck, University of London.

By Birkbeck, University of London

Rosalind Franklin Laboratory at Birkbeck (c 1997)Birkbeck, University of London

What lies beneath

While it might sound obscure, X-ray crystallography has helped reveal why diamonds are hard, how liquid flows, why glass is so brittle and how our muscles are able to contract.

Atomic model of liquid (1958)Birkbeck, University of London

Great 20th-century innovation
This scientific technique helps us see the atomic structure of the tiny molecules that make up almost everything around us. It has been so revolutionary that no fewer than 28 Nobel prizes have been awarded to projects related to crystallography.

Rosalind Franklin Laboratory at Birkbeck (c 1997)Birkbeck, University of London

It has enabled the discovery of crucial biological structures, from proteins to DNA, helping us understand, and potentially modify, their workings. The technique also helps scientists discover new drugs and fight viruses.

Diagram showing the process of X-ray crystallography (2017)Birkbeck, University of London

The x-ray crystallography process
1. The molecule is crystallized.

2. An X-ray beam is fired at the crystal.

3. The crystal splits the beam into many rays, diffracting them onto photographic film.

A diffraction pattern (1960s)Birkbeck, University of London

4. Scientists measure how the X-rays scatter and use complex mathematical equations to work out the molecular structure of the sample.
5. The structure is then visualized in a 3D model.

X-ray crystallography at Birkbeck

Scientists began experimenting with the technique around 1900. A major breakthrough came in 1913, when Lawrence Bragg realised that the X-ray diffraction pattern held the clues to the atomic structure of the crystal sample itself. Many key discoveries and breakthroughs were made by scientists with links to Birkbeck, University of London.

J D Bernal (late 1950s)Birkbeck, University of London

John Desmond Bernal was one of the pioneers of X-ray crystallography. He was a visionary scientist who saw that the technique could be applied to biology or, as he called it, the study of life itself.

Birkbeck's Crystallography staff (1946)Birkbeck, University of London

He was the first to use crystallography to discover the structure of proteins.

Bernal worked at Birkbeck from 1937-1968 - as a professor of physics and later, crystallography.

The Biomolecular Research Laboratory at Birkbeck (1947)Birkbeck, University of London

He set up a new laboratory to work on protein structures and also made a notable contribution on the structure of liquids.

Crystallography laboratory at Birkbeck (1968)Birkbeck, University of London

Bernal made sure Birkbeck's labs were fully equipped with everything necessary to carry out X-ray crystallography experiments.

Protein crystal viewed under a microscope (1960s)Birkbeck, University of London

Bernal said, 'The secret of life lies in the structure of proteins, and there is only one way of solving it and this is by crystallography.'

J D Bernal with his model of liquid (1958)Birkbeck, University of London

He made his own 3D models, such as this one, which demonstrates the 'perfect randomness' of water molecules.

Electron Spectroscopy of molecules (1973)Birkbeck, University of London

Originally, it could take a year or more to determine a protein structure.

Bernal was the first to try to use computing to help with crystallographic calculations. The university's Computer Science department was born as an offshoot of Bernal’s Crystallography Department.

J D Bernal teaching students at Birkbeck (c 1960)Birkbeck, University of London

Bernal was an inspiring teacher and mentored crystallographers who went on to work on a huge range of molecules.

Among his students were Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who won the 1964 Nobel prize for solving the structure of vitamin B12, and Rosalind Franklin, who played a major part in the discovery of the DNA double helix - probably the most famous result of crystallography.

Particle structure of the TMV virus (c 1956)Birkbeck, University of London

Rosalind Franklin did pioneering work on virus structure at Birkbeck, before her premature death in 1958.

This is her visualisation of the tobacco mosaic virus.

Poster for an exhibition celebrating Bernal's life and work (1972)Birkbeck, University of London

Bernal was one of the most influential scientists of his generation. He believed that science was central to society and a means of improving the condition of life.

He wrote extensively on the subject and campaigned for social responsibility among scientists and increased government support for scientific research.

He also made important contributions during World War II.

As government scientific advisor, he helped map the Normandy beaches, and designed an artificial mulberry harbour, used during the D-Day Landings.

Cover of 'The Social Function Of Science' by J D Bernal (1939)Birkbeck, University of London

The Social Function of Science, published in 1939, was his most celebrated work.

Bernal's Picasso (1950)Birkbeck, University of London

Bernal was a Marxist and a peace campaigner. Pablo Picasso came to England to attend a world peace conference in November 1950. At a dinner at Bernal’s flat above Birkbeck lab, Picasso made a mural of a man and a woman, signifying peace - the only mural Picasso ever made in England.

When Bernal’s flat was demolished to make way for a new college building, the mural was saved and is now part of the Wellcome Collection.

Birkbeck's Crystallography staff (1964)Birkbeck, University of London

Under Bernal's leadership, Birkbeck’s Crystallography department became a world class centre of excellence.

Detail of a powder diffractometer (1997)Birkbeck, University of London

X-ray crystallography is still the main technique for revealing the structure of almost anything.

Today's crystallographers do the same work as Bernal, but on a larger scale and with more sophisticated methods and machines.

X-ray machine (late 1980s)Birkbeck, University of London

Much of the process is now automated. Scientists have also developed new techniques to compliment X-ray crystallography, notably power diffraction and electron microscopy.

This 1980s X-ray machine had much more processing power.

Crystallography laboratory at Birkbeck (c 2000)Birkbeck, University of London

Some work previously carried out through X-ray diffraction is now done using electron microscopy.

Inspecting electron density maps using a light box (c 2000)Birkbeck, University of London

Scientists compare electron density maps to create 3D models...

Computer visualization of protein structures (2016)Birkbeck, University of London

...and visualise atomic structures with computer software.

X-ray machine (2016)Birkbeck, University of London

Birkbeck has more modern X-ray machines these days.

Cover of BBK magazine (Autumn 2010)Birkbeck, University of London

Birkbeck staff recently solved the bacterial toxin that causes gas gangrene - a disease that can lead to amputations.

Discovering this toxin's structure is a vital step towards its prevention through medicine.

Credits: Story

This exhibit has been created with photographs from the College Archive and Crystallography Department at Birkbeck, University of London.

Curated by Victoria Rea.

With thanks to Ambrose Cole.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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