I recently found a blog post from regular Chemistry World contributor Derek Lowe, highlighting an Early View Angewandte Chemie communication (doi: 10.1002/anie.201406886) in which the authors determined the crystal structures of two new polymorphs of the amino acid L-Phenylalanine. The paper also helps to clarify the relationship between several other Phenylalanine structures published over the last 20 years. Although Derek was surprised that determining the structure of a seemingly simple molecule had proved such a challenge for small-molecule crystallography, this type of challenge is not unusual. A notable example is the case of the two polymorphs of D-Ribose which evaded full determination for over 50 years (see ZZZFEE in the CSD from 1956!) until Jack Dunitz and co-workers published an article triumphantly exclaiming “The Crystal Structure of D-Ribose—At Last!” in 2010 (doi: 10.1002/anie.201001266).
The challenges involved in obtaining good quality single crystals to determine a structure should not be underestimated. Prior to the findings of this latest paper, the Cambridge Structural Database (CSD) contained five determinations of the structure of L-Phenylalanine (QQQAUJ-QQQAUJ04), from four different groups of researchers, all proposing different polymorphic forms based on the crystal structure data that they obtained.