|Researchers Debut New X-Ray Resources
for Studying Molecules
Soon scientists at Argonne National Laboratory near
Chicago, Ill., will test-drive what many call the “Ferrari” of
synchrotron beamlines — high-tech research facilities
for imaging molecules. During a dedication ceremony
on Monday, June 27, researchers will tour the facilities
and watch experimental demonstrations on one of three
new beamlines that promise to speed medical research.
Several novel design features that allow for automation,
additional research stations, and more refined data
will enable researchers to study molecules in greater
detail and translate those findings into new medicines,
ultimately benefiting basic research and human health.
The project is supported by the National Institutes
of Health (NIH) in collaboration with Argonne National
Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
“The results of this interagency teamwork will be a
great boon to the structural biology community,” said
NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. “We expect the
effects to be cumulative, with one important scientific
advance following another.”
Synchrotrons generate intense X-ray beams that researchers
use to picture the three-dimensional shapes of molecules.
However, just a handful of these large-scale facilities
exist worldwide. Biologists, biochemists, and other
researchers apply for access to about 45 experimental
stations in the United States. Many want time at the
Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE user facility at
Argonne offering the most powerful X-ray beams in the
To help meet the needs of structural biologists, who
make up nearly half of all synchrotron users, NIH’s
National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)
and National Cancer Institute partnered with the DOE
to commission the development of the additional beamlines
“One of the goals of this project was to design experimental
facilities that are easy to operate, allowing users
to focus on their samples instead of which buttons to
push,” said Janet Smith, Ph.D., a structural biologist
at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and director
of the development team.
Taking advantage of new technology, the additional
experimental stations at APS can accommodate many robotic
and automated tools. This capability could enable researchers
to conduct their studies from their home laboratories.
Smith credited the Protein Structure Initiative, a
10-year, $600 million program funded largely by NIGMS,
for driving the development of automated systems that
will enhance the performance of the new resources at
the DOE facility.
The beamlines also are the first to utilize novel APS
technology that splits a single X-ray beam into two
and then manipulates each one so it’s just as intense
as the original.
“The ability to do two experiments simultaneously from
the same light source is a big bonus,” explained Smith. “It
doubles the value of real estate at the synchrotron.”
But where the new beamlines really show their power
is in their ability to produce extremely fine X-ray
beams. This feature enables researchers to capture data
on molecules that have been challenging to work with
in the past.
Already, the new facilities have produced exciting
results. One research team has succeeded in generating
a detailed structure of the bacteria-infecting HK97
virus — a notable achievement given that most viruses
are complex and difficult to image at high resolutions.
Knowing the structures of viruses and proteins and how
they attach to other molecules will help researchers
develop drugs that block those interactions.
“The properties of these X-ray beams are even better
than we envisioned,” said Charles Edmonds, Ph.D., NIGMS
scientific director for the interagency project. “They
will allow researchers to do new kinds of experiments,
leading to even more ideas and questions to ask.”
Structural biologists will have general access to one
of the beamlines later this year. The development team
expects all three to be fully operational by summer
NIGMS and NCI are among the 27 institutes and centers
at NIH, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. Additional information about the two
institutes is available at their respective Web sites:
http://www.nigms.nih.gov and http://www.nci.nih.gov.
Information about Argonne National Laboratory, including
the Advanced Photon Source, is available at http://www.anl.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) The
Nation's Medical Research Agency is comprised
of 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of
the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It is the primary Federal agency for conducting and
supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical
research, and investigates the causes, treatments,
and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more
information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.