Microfabricated tools and crystallization plates: Proteins catalyze reactions, shape cells and relay signals through the body. To understand how they work, researchers first figure out proteins' 3-D shape. Part of that process involves crystallizing proteins on rectangular plates with hundreds of individual wells. Current tools for protein crystallization have flaws: tiny tools to manipulate the protein crystals are rigid, vibrate easily and can damage fragile samples. Frustrated with the fuss, physicist Robert Thorne of Cornell University developed new tools and plates.

Patent No. 8,210,057 describes tools formed from plastic film. A gentle curve in the tools lends them strength—they are thin without being floppy. This same strategy is used by leaves and petals in nature, Thorne notes. One of the tools has “fingers” that can bend and gently grip protein crystals. Patent No. 7,666,259 details a new kind of protein crystallization plate, in which wells are replaced by micropatterned film. Drops stick to the surface even when the plate is upside down—held in place by surface tension from printed rings just 25 microns tall. The tools are already on the market, and the plates will be available later this year.