Fast crystallography for high profile research

Media releases

Australian protein chemists and drug developers will be able to access synchrotron light within weeks and without leaving home thanks to a new service at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne.

Just two years ago similar work would have meant waiting for months or years and then travelling overseas carrying precious samples through customs.

Protein crystallography using synchrotron light has become an essential tool for rational drug design. It played an important role for example in the development of Relenza and of Viagra.

Hundreds of scientists have already used the protein crystallography beamline in Melbourne for a wide range of drug screening and protein analysis projects.  Each receives a 24 hour or longer access slot at the synchrotron. But that’s too much access for some work.

The rapid access service will be open to researchers

  • with an urgent need – to beat an international competitor or establish an intellectual property position for example
  • with too few samples for a full 24 hour run
  • with a few extra samples to run following a previous experiment.

When this new service is combined with remote access, the scientist need never leave home.

Only five synchrotrons offer remote access but it makes logistical sense says Julian Adams, the Principal Scientist – protein crystallography at the Australian Synchrotron.

“Giving remote access users a priority is simply a matter of logistics and cost. Each on-site user receives at least three hours of induction training, and must also be fitted with a costly radiation dosimeter, which records radiation exposure over a three-month period.”

“Remote users don’t incur these overheads, and they use the synchrotron in just the same way as those on-site. All use the SAM (Stanford Automatic Mounting system), which is a robotic arm that loads the crystals into the synchrotron for testing, and then replaces them with the next crystal. “

Julian says that the rapid access program will also make it possible for people to do smaller experiments. “Normally, if you’re well organised and have well diffracting crystals, you might do 50 to 60 in your twenty-four hour slot,” he says.

“For practical reasons we can’t usually have smaller allocation blocks, but if you only want to look at a small number of crystals you might only need two or three hours. With rapid access, we can give three or four groups access over the 24 hours, so people with small projects will have access for the first time.”

Approximately one day a month will be set aside for rapid access—researchers will be able to gain access in about two and a half weeks from the time their application is submitted. The first rapid access day is Wednesday 8 October and the synchrotron is now taking applications.

Julian says that unlike most types of beamlines, work on the protein crystallography beamline tends to be very standardised. “What each user group wants to do on the beamline is almost identical to what the one before will have done, although with a different crystal. It lends itself to rapid throughput.”