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News, 06 December 2011

European XFEL joins BioStruct-X

X-Ray lasers may significantly improve structure determination of biomolecules.

Knowledge of the structure of biomolecules such as proteins is key for scientists who want to understand how these biocatalysts work or to develop new medicines. To determine the structure, proteins are usually crystallized, illuminated by X-rays, and the resulting diffraction pattern analyzed. This method of macromolecular crystallography is mainly carried out using X-rays generated at synchrotron facilities. A number of research institutions led by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), among them European XFEL, have now joined forces in the new EU-funded project BioStruct-X.

One goal of the new consortium is to make crystallographic data from X-ray free-electron lasers (XFELs) interpretable in a similar way as synchrotron based data. The pulses from XFELs are up to a billion times brighter than X-ray beams from synchrotrons, allowing patterns to be collected from biological samples that were thought to be simply too small for structure analysis. This protein ‘nanocrystallography’ potentially saves years of effort by avoiding the need to prepare large crystals, and opens up the study of a large proportion of biomolecules in cell membranes, which are important drug targets.
Within BioStruct-X, European XFEL scientists will work on the nanocrystallography project with colleagues from a number of leading international research centres such as Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire who coordinate the BioStruct-X joint research activity in data analysis, and the Centre for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL, established in Hamburg by DESY, the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft and the University of Hamburg), where the nanocrystallographic data analysis has been developed. “Together with our partners, we plan to implement analysis of crystallography data from free-electron lasers into a software framework familiar to the structural biology community. We want to move analysis of free-electron laser data from the world of experts to a broader community of scientists,” says Adrian Mancuso, leading scientist at European XFEL.

BioStruct-X is a consortium of 19 institutions from 11 EU member and associated states. The general objective is to establish a state-of-the-art infrastructure for current and emerging key methods in 21st century structural biology, thus advancing European research in biomedical sciences. The partners, who had their kickoff-meeting 5–6 December, will contribute leading research expertise in structural biology using high brilliance X-rays, provided by state-of-the art synchrotrons and the European XFEL.

For more information about BioStruct-X please visit