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Federal Ministry of Education and Research grants Two Million Euro for Researching Biomolecules

Grant will position Hamburg as leader in time-resolved structural biology

Universität Hamburg has been awarded two million Euro from the Federal Ministry of Research and Education (BMBF) for a joint research project at DESY´s X-ray light source PETRA III. The project, “Hadamard crystallography as a method for time-resolved investigations of the structural dynamics of biomolecules,” involves research teams from the cluster of excellence “The Hamburg Centre for Ultrafast Imaging” (CUI) of Universität Hamburg, from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Hamburg and from DESY. The funding will run for three years.

“This is a great step-forward for our research,” says CUI professor Arwen Pearson. “The grant will enable Hamburg to take a leading position in time-resolved structural biology in the coming years. Thanks to the unique combination of experienced groups in the fields of time-resolved X-ray science, the transport and handling of samples, and the structure and operation of beamlines, synergies are generated that hardly exist at any other research location,” Pearson says. The project has been initiated by CUI co-operations. In addition to Pearson’s group, the participating partners are the groups of Prof. Nils Huse (CUI, Universität Hamburg), Dr. Thomas Schneider (EMBL Hamburg), Prof. Henry Chapman (CUI, DESY, Universität Hamburg); Prof. Christian Betzel (CUI, Universität Hamburg) and Prof. Martin Trebbin (CUI, Universität Hamburg).


Time-resolved crystallographic experiments at the X-ray light source PETRA III will use new sample delivery and data collection methods to directly image biochemical reactions. Credit: Jörg Harms, MPSD

In Hadamard crystallography, after the reaction has been triggered in a sample it is probed by a series of X-ray pulses. These pulses build up a single crystallographic image—a bit like a long exposure photograph. The experiment is repeated using different patterns of light pulses each creating a different long exposure image. While each of the long exposure images is blurred, the differences in the images and between the pulse patterns that created them allow researchers to extract a moving picture of the molecules’ changing structures.

The funding will be used for the extension of two existing beamlines at PETRA III: The DESY beamline P11, which is already used for time-resolved experiments in spectroscopy and diffraction, will get an additional X-ray mirror system. Establishing a second experimental end-station at this beamline will dispense with time consuming modifications and thus facilitate the implementation of these experiments. Furthermore, a brand new end-station will be established behind the experimental station at the EMBL P14 beamline, including a laser system, new optics, Hadamard encoding shutters, and detectors that will let the scientists deliver a 10 x 10 µm2 beam with 1010 photons/ms, ideal for Hadamard data collection. This will provide the research teams with a dedicated measuring station optimized for time-resolved structural biology.

Modular design approach: FELs will also profit

The research funded by the award includes time-resolved structural biology, biophysics, microfluidics and dynamic light scattering. While the instrumentation will be situated at the X-ray radiation source PETRA III, the team aims to conduct experiments from which free-electron lasers (FEL) will also profit. A modular design approach will enable the scientists to transfer the optimized designs that have previously been tested at PETRA III to the planned experiments of the new European XFEL currently under construction in the metropolitan area. The two X-ray sources will complement each other well: the brilliance and the short pulses of the European XFEL enable a direct view of ultrafast chemical steps; the subsequent macromolecular responses take place in the comparatively slow timescales of nano- and milliseconds, which are best investigated with the synchrotron light source PETRA III.

Chapman: “The scientific prospects are extraordinary. What we are doing here is introducing new methods that can fully take advantage of the brightest X-ray beams in the world, which exist here in Hamburg.  These include Hadamard X-ray crystallography that Arwen Pearson’s group has invented and demonstrated, and novel liquid jets to quickly deliver protein crystals to the X-ray beam.  In combination with the new end stations and powerful new computational approaches, it promises measurements for the life sciences that just would not have been possible before.”