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Taking ULTRA molecular fingerprints

Visit  Science and Technology Facilities Council website

29 January 2008

A new laser under development at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire will enable UK bio scientists to monitor biological processes at a millionth of a millionth of a second.

The ULTRA laser will be the world’s most sensitive time-resolved vibrational spectrometer. Vibrational spectroscopy analyses the frequency of vibrations in the bonds between the atoms that make up molecules. Bonds between different types of atoms have their own frequencies and scientists can build up a spectrum of these vibrations, giving the molecule its own 'fingerprint'. Professor Tony Parker, Head of the Lasers for Science Facility, explains: "The ULTRA laser is designed to study molecular changes at the thousand million millionth of a second (femtosecond) to microsecond timescales. What makes it special is that its light will focus on biological and medically important research with high multidisciplinary science content. ULTRA will help biologists to understand what makes DNA so chemically stable that it is entrusted by nature to hold the key to our genetic code, and such mysteries as how proteins change their shape to control life sustaining processes or lead to diseases such as BSE. Ultrafast timescales may seem rather abstract when considering the human timescale of events in seconds, minutes and days but the ‘biological chemistry’ to be investigated is very real to molecules keeping us alive and healthy."

The ULTRA laser tunes across the ultraviolet to the mid infrared. This wide tuning range at 10,000 pulses per second, coupled to the development of new sensitive detectors by STFC’s Technology Department, is key to ULTRA’s improved sensitivity. Together they make it a unique machine capable of more than an order magnitude greater performance on existing ‘university’ scale machines. The facility will also enable more efficient use of precious biological samples, for example DNA, as smaller amounts of material are required compared to conventional equipment. Fresh, rather than frozen, samples are also used, further enhancing ULTRA’s research capabilities. Through ULTRA, biologists will be able to take ‘molecular fingerprints’ and ‘see’ a wide range of biological processes not observable by their existing counterparts.

Currently under development at the Lasers for Science Facility at RAL, through funding from the STFC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, ULTRA has produced its first usable laser output - a major milestone in the project. ULTRA is taking techniques widely used in the physical sciences, and adapting them to the needs of the bioscience research community. Its applications are wide-reaching: examining DNA damage (the primary steps in mutation), protein function and researching disease recognition are just a few research areas that will benefit from this advanced facility. Once ULTRA’s unique scientific benefits are delivered, its technology will be spunout to more general industrial and medical applications.

Due to become operational in the autumn, ULTRA is set to be a key tool for biologists worldwide.


Notes to editors

The institutions involved in the ULTRA project are University of Nottingham, University of Cambridge, Medical Research Council, University of Manchester, University of Leicester and Cranfield University.

ULTRA (Ultra-sensitive Life science Time-Resolved Analysis) ULTRA is a 10 kHz dual beam laser system based on the state-of-the art regenerative amplifier technology delivering offering pulse widths from 50 fs to 2 ps tuneable from 200 to 10,000 nm.

ULTRA is based around a custom built laser system provided by Thales (France) according to STFC specifications.

ULTRA will mainly do time-resolved vibrational spectroscopy (both infra-red and Raman). The three year project began in Autumn 2005 and will become a user facility from Autumn 2008.

The facility will be made available to UK and International researchers upon its completion.

ULTRA has been funded through a major facility development grant, resourced jointly by STFC and BBSRC (£1.8M).


Click on the thumbnail to view and download full-size image.

Larger image
A snapshot of the infrared spectrum demonstrating the wide wavelength range generated by ULTRA in a single pulse (57KB)

About the Central Laser Facility and the Lasers for Science Facility

The Central Laser Facility at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is one of the world's leading laser facilities providing scientists from universities in the UK and Europe with an unparalleled range of state-of-the-art laser technology.

The Lasers for Science Facility has a strong record in designing next generation capability for UK academia and then developing this for wider societal exploitation. Recent examples of this type of developmental effort include applications to detect counterfeit drugs, non-invasive diagnosis of various diseases and cancerous lesions, and applications in airport security.

About STFC

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:

  • The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
  • The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire
  • The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh

The Council gives researchers access to world class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

The Council distributes public money from the Government to support scientific research. Between 2007 and 2008 it will invest £678 million.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

External contact

Natalie Bealing, Science and Technology Facilities Council Press Office

tel: 01235 445484

Professor Anthony Parker

tel: 01235 445109


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299