Newswise — COVINGTON, Kentucky, July 21, 2019 -- In a world full of pressure, life finds a way. In the deepest ocean trenches, how life finds a way is being investigated using a technique that works when the pressure is more than 1,000 times what is felt on the shore. 

Researchers at Cornell University are using a high-pressure biology facility dedicated to providing the emerging “deep-life” community with new technology to study fundamental molecular biology. The facility, funded by both the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, is called HP-Bio and resides at the newly upgraded Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS). HP-Bio provides high-pressure small angle X-ray scattering and macromolecular crystallography technologies to examine how biomolecules function in organisms under high-pressure conditions. 

During the 69th Annual Meeting of the American Crystallographic Association, being held July 20-24, in Covington, Kentucky, Richard Gillilan, a staff scientist at Cornell University working at CHESS, will show how using high-pressure size exclusion chromatography coupled to small angle X-ray scattering (HP-SEC-SAXS) can help high-pressure biologists sort out complex protein-to-protein interactions at extreme ocean depths. 

“The vast majority of single-cell organisms on this planet live under pressure and, according to most recent estimates, some 70% of bacteria and archaea live underground,” Gillilan said. “It’s not just that a great many organisms on our planet live under pressure. There are good reasons to believe that life itself might have originated in the deep subsurface or in hydrothermal vents.” 

Gillilan said that after the upgrade project, CHESS now supports a unique high-pressure biology facility that offers state-of-the-art BioSAXS and macromolecular crystallography as well as hands-on training in how to use those techniques. These high-pressure technologies are needed by the deep-life research community to investigate subsurface life. 

“If LUCA, the last universal common ancestor of all of Earth’s creatures, lived under pressure, then a great deal of our basic molecular biology really needs to be re-thought in terms of pressure,” he said. “How long did life spend down there? Are there still signatures of high pressure in our present-day biology? These are very interesting questions that researchers in this field are starting to examine.” 


The session, “Crystallography at Extreme Conditions,” will be held at 1:30 p.m. EDT, Sunday, July 21, in Ballroom D of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center.


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The American Crystallographic Association was founded in 1949 through a merger of the American Society for X-Ray and Electron Diffraction (ASXRED) and the Crystallographic Society of America (CSA). The objective of the ACA is to promote interactions among scientists who study the structure of matter at atomic (or near atomic) resolution. These interactions will advance experimental and computational aspects of crystallography and diffraction. Understanding the nature of the forces that both control and result from the molecular and atomic arrangements in matter will help shed light on chemical interactions in nature and can therefore lead to cures for disease. See