World's most powerful X-ray Laser

La Trobe University researchers will be among the first scientists to run experiments at the world’s most powerful X-ray Laser facility when it opens in Germany in September.

The European X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) in Hamburg can generate tens of thousands of X-ray flashes per second and produce light one billion times brighter than conventional X-ray technology, paving the way for scientists to capture the first-ever images of molecules moving in real time.

Dr Brian Abbey and Professor Keith Nugent from La Trobe’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Advanced Molecular Imaging will collaborate with international scientists to run the world’s first mega-hertz crystallography experiment.

“To date, no one has been able to successfully image a protein using X-ray diffraction collected from a single molecule,” Dr Abbey said.

“We will be using tiny crystals, measuring just a few hundred nanometres or approximately 100 to 1000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, to help us solve the biomolecular structure of proteins.

“Nanocrystals are made up of thousands of molecules condensed into a solid; the idea is to shoot pulses of X-rays at them at around 30,000 times a second. In a normal experiment, the samples would be too small to obtain high-quality images and we would typically only get one frame of data per second.

“This work could lead to the solution of protein structures in a tiny fraction of the time that it currently takes.

“One of the long-term goals of the European XFEL is to create atomic-scale movies of individual protein molecules, the fundamental building blocks of life. Our experiment is an important stepping-stone in that end game.”

Dr Abbey said the ability to make real-time movies of molecules would be a major scientific breakthrough.

“Current imaging methods are generally too slow to capture the dynamics of molecules.

“The X-ray laser will allows us to take ultrafast snapshots of molecules before they explode. Each of these snapshots is like a single frame of a movie. Putting all the frames together would enable us to see molecules moving around and interacting in their native environment.

“In the future, scientists may be able to observe molecules as they move around inside cancer cells or capture the interaction of a drug with a particular target molecule. This information could ultimately help us develop new and more effective treatments for disease.”

Professor Nugent, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), said La Trobe was the only Australian university that had invested in the European XFEL.

“La Trobe recognises that this is one of most important scientific projects in the world right now,” Professor Nugent said.

“La Trobe’s investment and involvement in the XFEL puts us at the forefront of innovative science and as a university we want to help shape international X-ray research.”

La Trobe’s Dr Marjan Hadian, who is co-funded by the Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organisation (ANSTO), is the only researcher from an Australian university currently based at the European XFEL. Her role will be to analyse data from the experiments.

“The results of my data work will help biologists to understand how immune proteins interact and affect immune responses and provide insights for combating common diseases that affect society,” Dr Hadian said.

Media contact Anastasia Salamastrakis 0428 195 464

Picture: Dr Brian Abbey