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March 27, 2007 - Stanford–Caltech Collaboration Creates New X-ray "Molecular Observatory" - Press Release

Date Issued: March 27, 2007


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Beamline dedication

Gordon Moore, just after unveiling a plaque at the newly dedicated Molecular Observatory for Structural Molecular Biology at Beamline 12. (Click on image to see larger version. Photo courtesy of Diana Rogers.)

Menlo Park, CA—Just as astronomers use specialized observatories to study distant galaxies, chemists and molecular biologists need advanced tools for studying nano-scale structures—in some ways as inaccessible as the far reaches of the cosmos. Now, thanks to a collaboration among Stanford University, California Institute of Technology and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, researchers have a new tool for studying in great detail the molecules that make up living systems. The new Molecular Observatory for Structural Molecular Biology at the Department of Energy's Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL) will help unlock the secrets of macromolecular crystal assemblies on the atomic level with an unprecedented degree of precision.

On Friday, March 23, heads of the collaboration gathered for an official dedication of the new Molecular Observatory at SSRL. Attendees included Stanford President John Hennessy, Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau, and Intel founder and philanthropist Gordon Moore.

"Instrumentation seems to be the place where we can make the biggest impact, where new capabilities make possible great leaps forward," said Moore, addressing the crowd. "It enables scientists to do things otherwise unavailable to them."

Using SSRL's synchrotron electron accelerator, the observatory capitalizes on a device called an "undulator" to create powerful beams of X-rays. Undulators consist of rows of magnets with fields that alternate direction along the beam path. The magnets force the electrons inside the vacuum pipe to undulate back and forth, emitting X-rays as they go. The new undulator differs from others in use at SSRL because the rows of magnets are placed inside the accelerator's vacuum pipe, allowing them to squeeze closer together around the beam and exert a stronger field on the electrons. The result is an ultra-bright beam of X-rays that can be focused into a tiny spot and trained onto biologic samples.

The science of protein crystallography—a widely used method for creating images of large crystallized molecules, relies on tightly controlled, highly focused X-ray beams to probe the structure of different materials. This is done by crystallizing a sample of molecules, blasting it with X-rays and analyzing the X-ray pattern that scatters onto a detector. Protein crystallography studies often require screening hundreds of samples to map out the properties of one complex molecule. In the case of the new observatory, the high brightness of the X-rays means samples will need shorter exposure times and more samples can be processed quickly.

The new observatory also boasts an automated sample-handling system that can be controlled remotely, allowing researchers from Caltech and SSRL users from around the world to conduct research without having to travel. With this system, a robotic arm removes a sample stored in liquid nitrogen and places it in front of the X-ray beam, obviating the need for researchers to repeatedly enter the experimental station to emplace a sample manually. The software developed to operate the system remotely, called Blu-Ice, was developed by SSRL computer scientists and is the first such system of its kind. Once a batch of samples has arrived at the lab, scientists working remotely have full control of how the samples are scanned. Presently there are seven remote-access systems in use at SSRL.

The new Molecular Observatory promises to push the boundaries of atomic- and molecular-scale imaging. By working out the blueprint of proteins and nucleic acids—DNA and RNA, or so-called "macromolecules"—scientists can better address fundamental questions such as how the chemistry life is achieved and regulated within cells.

"The new beam line being dedicated today will enable Caltech scientists and SSRL’s users to address problems at the cutting edge of structural biology research" said Keith Hodgson, Photon Science Director at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). "We are very grateful to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for their visionary investment."

SSRL and Caltech will divide the research time on the new observatory, now under going commissioning. Development and installation of the observatory was funded by a $12.5 million gift from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through an agreement between the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University, SLAC and SSRL. SLAC is operated by Stanford and is funded in part by the Department of Energy's Office of Science.

by Brad Plummer


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