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Prior to attaching any biological significance to differences between two related protein crystal structures, it must be established that such differences are genuine, rather than artefacts of the structure-determination protocol. This will be all the more important as more and more related protein structures are solved and comparative structural biology attempts to correlate structural differences with variations in biological function, activity or affinity. A method has been developed which enables unbiased assessment of differences between the structures of related biomacromolecules using experimental crystallographic information alone. It is based on the use of local density-correlation maps, which contain information regarding the similarity of the experimental electron density for corresponding parts of different copies of a molecule. The method can be used to assess a priori which parts of two or more molecules are likely to be structurally similar; this information can then be employed during structure refinement. Alternatively, the method can be used a posteriori to verify that differences observed in two or more models are supported by the experimental information. Several examples are discussed which validate the notion that local conformational variability is highly correlated to differences in the local experimental electron density.
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