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The temperature-dependence of radiation damage to thaumatin crystals between T = 300 and 100 K is reported. The amount of damage for a given dose decreases sharply as the temperature decreases from 300 to 220 K and then decreases more gradually on further cooling below the protein-solvent glass transition. Two regimes of temperature-activated behavior were observed. At temperatures above ∼200 K the activation energy of 18.0 kJ mol−1 indicates that radiation damage is dominated by diffusive motions in the protein and solvent. At temperatures below ∼200 K the activation energy is only 1.00 kJ mol−1, which is of the order of the thermal energy. Similar activation energies describe the temperature-dependence of radiation damage to a variety of solvent-free small-molecule organic crystals over the temperature range T = 300–80 K. It is suggested that radiation damage in this regime is vibrationally assisted and that the freezing-out of amino-acid scale vibrations contributes to the very weak temperature-dependence of radiation damage below ∼80 K. Analysis using the radiation-damage model of Blake and Phillips [Blake & Phillips (1962), Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation at the Molecular Level, pp. 183–191] indicates that large-scale conformational and molecular motions are frozen out below T = 200 K but become increasingly prevalent and make an increasing contribution to damage at higher temperatures. Possible alternative mechanisms for radiation damage involving the formation of hydrogen-gas bubbles are discussed and discounted. These results have implications for mechanistic studies of proteins and for studies of the protein glass transition. They also suggest that data collection at T ≃ 220 K may provide a viable alternative for structure determination when cooling-induced disorder at T = 100 is excessive.

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