Brookhaven Lab expects $30 million to support life sciences

03/03/04

Upton, NY – The Biology Department at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory recently announced that it expects to receive more than $30 million over the next five years, which will renew financing to support structural biological research, including studies of disease and genomics.

The funding, administered by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within DOE's Office of Science and by the National Center for Research Resources within the National Institutes of Health, will support a group of six work stations, called "beam lines," at the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) facility at Brookhaven. The NSLS produces x-ray and ultraviolet light used by scientists in the physical, chemical, and life sciences to probe the structure of many materials, including proteins and other biological molecules.

"The large size of the grant is a tribute to the strong infrastructure within the NSLS and Brookhaven Lab," said Robert Sweet, a structural biologist in the Biology Department at Brookhaven and spokesperson for the research group that maintains the beam lines. "It also reflects how valuable we are to a large number of powerful Northeastern U.S. research groups that use our facility."

For example, researcher Roderick MacKinnon of The Rockefeller University recently received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research, performed in part at the NSLS, on how nerve signals are propagated through the body.

"We're very proud of our ability to identify and support Nobel-quality projects like MacKinnon's work," Sweet said. "These funds will allow other important projects to move forward."

A research group from Yale University has used NSLS light to study the structure of ribosomes – cellular "machines" that assemble the proteins cells need to function. Also, scientists from Harvard University determined the structure of a type of tiny opening on the surface of cells that allows proteins to pass in and out of the cell. Their results may provide valuable insight into several basic cellular activities. The grants will also further the work of scientists from local Long Island institutions, such as Stony Brook University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Ari Patrinos, Associate Director of Science for DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the Office of Science, welcomed the renewal of funding for the beam lines. "The Brookhaven scientists are addressing two major objectives of the Lab's structural biology program: developing state-of-the-art technologies for solving the most difficult molecular structure problems, and providing access to this major facility, which is used by more than 2,500 scientists each year," he stated.

This type of research is part of a field of biology called macromolecular crystallography, which uses x-rays to determine the structure of various proteins and nucleic acids, the molecular engines that control the functions of all living cells. Because abnormalities and malfunctions in macromolecules, especially proteins, are often the root of many diseases, an important step toward developing drug treatments is learning about these molecules' structures.

The funds will cover the expenses of improving and maintaining the beam lines, which is carried out by Sweet's research group – a team of nine scientists and fourteen engineers and technicians. It also will cover the costs of training and assisting researchers in performing their measurements.

One of the beam lines supported by the grants is brand-new, and will produce the brightest x-ray light at the NSLS. Another, the beam line where MacKinnon performed his research, will be upgraded to produce even brighter light. Lonny Berman, an NSLS physicist, will manage the upgrade.

In addition, Sweet's group will use the funds to develop techniques that allow experimenters to work more quickly and efficiently. They have already pioneered a sophisticated service managed by Howard Robinson, a biophysicist, which allows crystal samples to be sent to NSLS researchers through the mail. In another project, managed by biophysicist Dieter Schneider, they are building a robot that will automatically change the specimens that are studied during NSLS experiments.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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