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Cornell partners in structural biology X-ray center

Cornell is a partner in a $25 million National Science Foundation award to develop a science and technology center aimed at transforming the field of structural biology, including drug development, using X-ray lasers. Eight universities and institutes, including Cornell, will work together to establish the new center.

The BioXFEL (pronounced bio-x-fell) research center, to be headquartered at the University at Buffalo, will focus on developing new X-ray techniques to solve the structures of biological molecules and complexes. These structures provide scientists with insights into how biological molecules self-assemble and function, what might be happening when disease occurs, and what compounds might be designed as drugs to modify this activity.

Scientists involved with the center will use a powerful new kind of X-ray beam developed at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University called an X-ray free-electron laser (XFEL) that delivers X-rays in the form of highly intense, ultra-short pulses, lasting tens of femtoseconds. Each pulse contains enough energy to destroy the sample; structural information is extracted just before the sample vaporizes. New methods for measuring structures emerge as a result of the intense X-ray energy present in each pulse.

 Although much of the center’s efforts will focus on obtaining structures from proteins that are largely immobilized in ultrasmall crystals, Lois Pollack, professor of applied and engineering physics, has pioneered the application of X-ray scattering to study the  large-scale dynamics of proteins and RNA. She will bring to the center her group’s expertise in developing and applying specialized instruments to detect motions of biological molecules as they work.

“The XFEL has the potential to revolutionize the way we study biological molecules,” Pollack said. “Our challenge is in designing and building tools to handle the tremendous X-ray intensity of each XFEL pulse.”

The BioXFEL center will promote applications of its research through industrial partners in the Industrial Macromolecular Crystallography Association, which comprises such pharmaceutical companies as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, Abbott, Merck and Novartis.

The NSF Science and Technology Centers: Integrative Partnerships program supports innovative, potentially transformative research and education projects that require large-scale, long-term awards. The centers foster cutting-edge research, education of the next generations of scientists, and broad distribution of the knowledge and technology produced.

Other partner institutions are Rice University, University of California campuses at San Francisco and Davis, Stanford University, Arizona State University and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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