Researcher Uses Internet to X-ray Life-Sustaining Crystals

At his West Virginia University lab, Aaron Robart grows crystals that may look like simple rock salt under conventional magnification, but by bombarding them with X-rays, he and his research team can construct computational models that expose the molecules within.

Aaron Robart, assistant professor of biochemistry at the WVU School of Medicine, works with WVU graduate student Taylor Thomas to remotely control an X-ray beam strong enough to show crystals’ molecular structures. The X-ray beam is part of the Advanced Photon Source in Chicago. Researchers at WVU can manipulate it via the Internet. (Credit: West Virginia University)

On August 22nd, Robart, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry in the WVU School of Medicine, used the powerful Advanced Photon Source at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago to bombard three types of life-sustaining crystals with X-rays exposing molecular structures that look like patterns of daisies or tangles of corkscrew pasta.

And he achieved it without leaving Morgantown, West Virginia.

Robart jokes that before it was possible to regulate the APS from a distance, he “practically lived in Chicago” so he could go to the facility in person. Since “beam time” at the Advanced Photon Source is occasional and can get slotted for the middle of the night, being able to remotely control the X-ray beams is a great convenience.

He can manipulate the ultra-bright, high-energy X-ray beams via the Internet to collect data that may stimulate new treatments for diabetes, cancers, stroke, neurological diseases and other conditions that develop as our cells age, multiply and accumulate wear and tear.

Robart explains that human chromosomes are covered with telomeres – regions that safeguard chromosomes from weakening the way that plastic tips placed at the ends of shoelaces safeguard them from fraying.

Usually telomeres shorten as one gets older and chromosomes replicate several times, but in the case of diseases such as cancer, telomeres may reload themselves, making it possible for cancer cells to prevent programmed cell death and be, hypothetically, immortal.

The Advanced Photon Source is one of the few facilities in the country that can provide full information about these phenomena.

Instead of smashing particles together, the Advanced Photon Source makes them travel in a large, closed loop that can fit about one and a half football fields inside the circumference. This produces very strong and incredibly stable X-rays that we use to obtain atomic-level detail of how molecular machines perform the chemical reactions of life.

Aaron Robart, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, the School of Medicine, West Virginia University

Michael Schaller, Chair of the Department of Biochemistry, says that simply observing a crystal under a microscope would not expose such complexity.

It is similar to trying to determine what an elephant looks like by bouncing ping-pong balls off of it, removing the elephant, and then trying to determine what it looks like based on where all of the ping-pong balls landed.

Aaron Robart, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, the School of Medicine, West Virginia University

One of the crystals Robart X-rayed with the Advanced Photon Source is an enzyme vital to liver metabolism. Another is a molecular complex that boosts the healthy breakdown of proteins. The third crystal contains components of the “spliceosome,” a combination of RNA and protein that guides how pieces of RNA are split up and pasted together.

You can’t fix a machine until you know how it works.

Aaron Robart, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, the School of Medicine, West Virginia University

With advances like the virtual manipulation of the Advanced Photon Source, Biochemists at WVU can look far afield for information into molecular machines without having to travel far.

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