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A crystal form of HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) complexed with inhibitors showed diffraction to a high-resolution limit of 3.7 Å. Instability in the unit-cell dimensions of these crystals was observed during soaking experiments, but the range of this variability and consequent change in lattice order was revealed by a chance observation of dehydration. Deliberately induced dehydration results in crystals having a variety of unit cells, the best-ordered of which show diffraction to a minimum Bragg spacing of 2.2 Å. In order to understand the molecular basis for this phenomenon, the initial observation of dehydration, the data sets from dehydrated crystals, the crystal packing and the domain conformation of RT are analysed in detail here. This analysis reveals that the crystals undergo remarkable changes following a variety of possible dehydration pathways: some changes occur gradually whilst others are abrupt and require significant domain rearrangements. Comparison of domain arrangements in different crystal forms gives insight into the flexibility of RT which, in turn, may reflect the internal motions allowing this therapeutically important enzyme to fulfill its biological function.
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