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X-Ray Microscopy Seen as Next Wave in Structural Biology Research

(February 2012)

Snapshots of proteins in repose might someday be replaced by views of proteins caught in action, if researchers presenting at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science have their way. Researchers will explore how X-ray imaging can surpass X-ray crystallography for gathering detailed structural and functional information, even going as far as CAT-scan-like tomography of cells at the nanometer scale.

X-ray crystallography has served structural biologists well—researchers who painstakingly purify individual proteins, DNA or other molecules of interest, form them into crystals and bombard them with X-rays to learn what they look like, how they work and how they've evolved over time. But with more than 60,000 unique molecules crystallized, some researchers, such as technologist Louis Terminello, say the relatively easy to crystallize ones are out of the way and biologists need a new tool for structural biology. From the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Terminello has assembled this symposium to explore X-ray imaging as that next powerful tool.

"X-ray imaging allows you to peer through a collection of cells and tissue and keep things as close to their natural state as possible," said Terminello. "Other methods require processes that perturb reality. With the advent of high spatially resolved X-ray technology, we are just on the edge of X-ray microscopy that can show us the architecture inside cells." Terminello hopes the X-ray microscope will transform structural biology the way van Leeuwenhoek's microscope created the field of biology centuries ago.

  • Organizer: Louis Terminello, lead scientist for PNNL's Chemical Imaging Initiative, an R&D effort to allow scientists to go from observing to manipulating systems on a molecular level.
  • Anton Barty, researcher at the Centre for Free Electron Laser Science, Hamburg, Germany. Barty will discuss how brief, intense X-ray pulses from free-electron lasers can record high-resolution structural information from biological objects such as viruses or large molecules before the onset of radiation damage.
  • Carolyn Larabell, scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, Calif. Larabell will present a high-resolution 3-D tomographic reconstruction of a cell based on her work with soft X-ray tomography (SXT), a nanometer-scale technology similar to CAT scans. Larabell has used SXT to study the effect of antimicrobial agents on pathogenic yeast and to study how DNA compacts during cell division in mouse olfactory cells.
  • Chris Jacobsen, researcher at Advanced Photon Source, Argonne, Ill. Jacobsen will discuss using X-ray microscopes to view trace elements with unprecedented sensitivity to better understand the role of metals in health and disease.

Reference: "Understanding Cellular Machinery Through X-Ray Imaging," Feb. 17, 10-11:30 a.m., Room 208-209, West Building, Vancouver Convention Center.
Media contact: Mary Beckman.

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