UNLOCKING BIOLOGY'S SECRETS
A racing stream of high-energy particles of light helped Case Western Reserve scientists create a movie of one of biology's tiniest gateways: a nanoscale pump on the surface of our cells that toggles open and shut to control the level of zinc inside.
This action, which occurs in far less time than a heartbeat, is one of the many secrets of structural and molecular biology that scientists can unlock through technologies available at the Case Center for Synchrotron Biosciences at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y. That's where Case Western Reserve operates four powerful X-ray beamlines, each tuned to reveal the world at biology's most infinitesimal frontiers. What they uncover may someday lead to the creation of therapies to treat disease-causing structural flaws.
Now the center is poised to become the No. 1 beamline facility for biology in the world, said Mark Chance, PhD, vice dean for research at the School of Medicine, Charles W. and Iona A. Mathias Professor of Cancer Research, and director of the Center for Proteomics and Bioinformatics. He produced the short first-of-its-kind nanoscale view of the zinc pump. And now he's guiding the installation of new beamlines at the new Brookhaven synchrotron with the help of a $4.6 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, part of the National Institutes of Health. The new university beamlines will start to come online next year. This is the second injection of funding to build new Case Center beamlines at Brookhaven. In 2012, the National Science Foundation granted the university $4 million to create a specialized beamline to image molecules such as the zinc pump, which is only 5 nanometers across.
The Brookhaven synchrotron is a giant ring in which magnets steer racing electrons around the circle. When the electrons change directions, they give off X-rays.
The new synchrotron ultimately will have 60 beamlines used by universities and private industry when the project is complete, including Case Western Reserve's four beamlines.
The university's beamlines have been used by more than 400 researchers from around the world in the last two decades. They are among the most productive of those at Brookhaven, leading to the publication of more than 1,100 scientific papers since 2003—many of them from Case Western Reserve scientists, Chance said.
The new beamlines could make the center even more productive. Chance said the new beamlines will be 100 times brighter than any other beamlines in the world, allowing experiments to be conducted either much faster or on samples that previously were impossible to analyze because they were so small.
"We hope with the upgrade that we'll be able to see the physiological action of these nanomachines of nature as they work inside a living cell," Chance said. "Previously, there were basically zero technologies that would let you to do this kind of high-resolution imaging of a living cell. We're only beginning to understand what this kind of power will allow us to learn."