The functional properties of proteins in the crystalline state have been investigated over the past 30 years by a variety of methods, including single crystal polarized absorption spectroscopy. This technique has provided information on the accumulation and equilibrium distribution of protein-ligand complexes in the crystal and, in a few cases, on the rates of interconversion of catalytic intermediates. It has been possible to detect synergistic effects in the binding of different ligands, cooperativity and half-site reactivity and even formation of active multiprotein complexes, obtained by diffusion of one small protein in the pre-formed crystals of the other. Lattice interactions restrain the conformational transitions of some proteins existing in multiple states in solution. The crystal offers the unique opportunity to analyse not only the structure but also the function of a single form of the protein. The relevance of these data to the planning and interpretation of structural studies, especially in the perspectives of time-resolved crystallography, will be discussed with reference to well-characterized systems.