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Video transcript: Beautiful biology from particle physics

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September 2009

Narrative
The Diamond Synchtron in Oxfordshire is one of the newest and most advanced particle accelerators in the world. Here, electrons are accelerated to near the speed of light and the high energy electromagnetic rays then produced called synchrotron light can delve into the structural matter at the atomic level. It means that this 45,000 square metre construction is really one of the most powerful microscopes in the world. And it’s what you put under the microscope that matters. 40% of the work at the Diamond Light Source is biomedical so some of the most important discoveries may eventually come from biology which is well represented by the BBSRC’s Diamond fellowship. This arrangement has bought Professor So Iwata and his membrane protein laboratory to a new research complex undergoing development at Diamond.

An expert in deciphering the molecular structures of proteins, Iwata hopes to unravel the proteins that span cell membranes using x-rays. A similar technique was used to determine the structure of DNA.

Professor So Iwata
At Diamond Light Source, actually, I am working on structures of membrane proteins. Membrane proteins have various functions. Sometimes these are receptors and sometimes these are transporters. For example, in this particular research programme for BBSRC we study membrane transporters. More than 50% of membrane proteins are major drug targets and solving membrane protein structures certainly facilitate drug discovery I think.

Dr Colin Miles
Membrane proteins are a particularly interesting group of proteins because they are largely responsible for cell-to-cell communication and they carry out critical biological functions which are of great interest to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries so knowing the fundamental structure of them allows you to produce drugs which will interact with those membrane proteins and hopefully lead to the development of new treatments for patients.

Professor So Iwata
Something like membrane proteins, which is very difficult to handle, the close proximity to the x-rays beamlines are quite essential so I think having a MPL at Diamond is quite advantageous for studying membrane proteins,

Dr Colin Miles
It is taking advantage alongside the beamline scientists so the innovations required in order to determine membrane protein structure will be done in collaboration with the people who actually operate the facility

Professor So Iwata
Because a protein molecule is very, very small, so here you cannot see by using your eyes, so you need to magnify the protein structure by some means. X-ray protein crystallography is one of the methods to do that.

Dr Colin Miles
Some fundamental discoveries have been made using x-rays to probe matter, for example, the structure of DNA was determined using x-rays and also the structure of such important molecules as haemoglobin and myoglobin have been determine using x-ray structures.

Professor So Iwata
X-ray protein crystallography is not particularly a new technique. The first protein structures has been solved in the 1960s but of course now we are solving much more complex protein structures like membrane proteins. So for this purpose we need this cutting-edge facility.

Narrative
So how does a synchrotron work? Electrons start their journey in a 30-metre linear accelerator and then pass into the booster synchrotron where they are accelerated by magnets in a vacuum to close to the speed of light. The electrons are then injected into a storage ring where they pass through specially designed magnets called insertion devices which cause the electrons to deviate from their orbit producing x-rays 100 billion times brighter than hospital x-rays. These x-rays are then channelled into the beamline experimental stations and passed through the target object. Similar to a hospital x-ray, the target deflects the x-rays and these diffractions reveal the internal composition of the target which, at Diamond, can be as small as a crystallised molecule or as large as an aircraft engine.

Dr Colin Miles
The idea behind the Diamond fellowship is to locate a researcher or researchers very close to the main facilities to allow better usage and better developments associated with those novel facilities such as the Diamond Synchrotron, the ISIS Pulsed Neutron Source and the high power laser facilities that exist there. Diamond was originally intended as a multi-user scientific facility but our particular contribution in order to get good value for BBSRC and particularly biology is by appointing So Iwata to this fellowship. So Iwata made his name in determining the three-dimensional structure of membrane proteins using x-ray crystallography and he has a very strong track record in this area. In fact, many of the proteins whose structure has been determined have been by So and members of his team

Professor So Iwata
I really want to be a link between Diamond Light Source in the life science community which is largely supported by BBSRC. Diamond Light Source is certainly one of the best facilities, synchrotron radiation facilities, in the world.

ENDS