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Molecular Biology and Genetics researchers focus attention on billion investment in research

The best and most powerful neutron source in the world – The European Spallation Source (ESS) – will open in Lund, Sweden, in 2019. Denmark is contributing with more than DKK 1 billion to the construction of the new facility. How will basic research in structural biology, biotechnology and medicinal chemistry get the most out of this investment? A group of researchers at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics held an international symposium at Aarhus University to highlight this question.

2013.04.05 | Lisbeth Heilesen

Researchers from many different countries met at Aarhus University to share their experience with neutron protein crystallography. Photo: Poul Nissen

Monika Budayova-Spano from Grenoble, France, is shown addressing the symposium audience about her experience and results. Photo: Ditlev Brodersen

The intense neutron source will be used for purposes such as neutron protein crystallography, which can provide detailed information on hydrogen atoms and ions in enzyme catalysis and protein–ligand interactions in particular. It thereby provides important application opportunities in the development of pharmaceuticals and industrial enzymes.

Neutron protein crystallography is based on interaction between a particle beam consisting of neutrons and atomic nuclei in the protein to be analysed. The method thus complements X-ray crystallography, which reflects the electron structure of the atoms. It thereby provides a unique opportunity for analysing enzyme function in full atomic detail, because hydrogen atoms and ions can be visualised much better than by X-ray.

Until now, the technique has been based on quite weak neutron beams that occur in a fission reactor, corresponding to those found in nuclear power stations. However, by using an entirely new technique called spallation – where protons are accelerated in a particle accelerator and impact a target at close to the speed of light – it is possible to create a neutron source that is more than a thousand times as strong. It is exactly this type of source – the European Spallation Source (ESS) – that will be completed in 2019 in Lund, Sweden, just across the water from Denmark. And this was the starting point for the symposium organised in Aarhus.

During the symposium, twelve speakers invited from the USA, France, Japan, Sweden and Denmark demonstrated what neutron protein crystallography can be used for. They also showed what analysis methods and equipment can be used and are being developed, and what results can be achieved.

The symposium concluded with discussions and recommendations, and will lead to a report that will provide an important basis for planning and designing the neutron protein crystallography facilities at ESS.


More information

  • Professor Poul Nissen – pn@mb.au.dk – +45 2899 2295
  • Associate Professor Ditlev E. Brodersen – deb@mb.au.dk – +45 2166 9001
  • Associate Professor Søren S. Thirup – sth@mb.au.dk – +45 2058 5981

All from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Aarhus University, Denmark

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