Research Alert

Imaging at the speed of life

The European XFEL marks a new age of protein movie-making that enables enzymes involved in disease to be observed in real time


  • newswise-fullscreen Imaging at the speed of life

    Credit: European XFEL / Blue Clay Studios

    In this illustration, microcrystals are injected (top, left) and a reaction is initiated by blue laser pulses hitting the proteins within the crystals (middle, left). The atomic structure of the protein (right) is probed during the reaction by the X-ray pulses (bottom, left). At the European XFEL, femtosecond optical laser pulses match the X-ray pulses that fire at a megahertz rate. X-ray pulses are six orders of magnitude larger than that at other X-ray sources. This makes it possible to produce diffraction patterns for nearly any protein, yielding still images recorded over unimaginably rapid time increments that form molecular movies. The image is copyrighted.

Newswise — To study the swiftness of biology – the protein chemistry behind every life function – scientists need to see molecules changing and interacting in unimaginably rapid time increments – trillionths of a second or shorter.

Imaging equipment with that kind of speed was finally tested last year at the European X-ray Free Electron Laser, or EuXFEL. Now, a team of physicists from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have completed the facility’s first molecular movie, or "mapping," of the ultrafast movement of proteins.

With this capability, scientists can watch how proteins do their jobs properly – or how their shape-changing goes awry, causing disease.

“Creating maps of a protein’s physical functioning opens the door to answering much bigger biological questions,” said Marius Schmidt, a UWM professor of physics who designed the experiment. “You could say, that the EuXFEL can now be looked on as a tool that helps to save lives.”

Their findings have marked a new age of protein research that enables enzymes involved in disease to be observed in real time for meaningful durations in unprecedented clarity. The paper, in the journal Nature Methods, is available when the embargo lifts on Nov. 18 at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41592-019-0628-z.

First author on the paper is UWM doctoral student Suraj Pandey. Coauthors include Schmidt and UWM faculty members Abbas Ourmazd and Peter Schwander, and graduate student Ishwor Poudyal. The experiment was performed by a large international team consisting members of the BioXFEL collaboration from Arizona State University and the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), and beamline research specialists at the EuXFEL.

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