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NE-CAT Center for Macromolecular Crystallography

Steven E. Ealick, Ph.D (

Center Overview

The NE-CAT Center for Macromolecular Crystallography is a facility that uses high intensity X-rays to determine the three-dimensional arrangement of atoms in biological molecules. The Resource is located at Sector 24 of the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), and overseen by the Northeastern Collaborative Access Team, which includes scientists from across the country. Determining the composition of molecules and visualizing their interactions at the molecular level provides insights into how cells transmit signals, how DNA encodes for proteins and how it is regulated, how the division and duplication of cells is governed, the structure and function of viruses, the special characteristics of membrane proteins, how proteins fold or misfold, and the structure and function of enzymes. Many of the research projects focus on how biological molecules interact to form large complexes acting in concert. To be used for this work, the atoms in the molecules must be held in relatively rigid positions in a solid state - a crystal - and kept very cold to slow their movement even more, so a clear snapshot can be taken. The primary technological research involves making advances in three main areas. First, the microdiffraction effort consists of developing increasingly smaller, but highly focused and stable X-ray beams, to interact with very tiny, often fragile crystals. Second, the resource continues new hardware development to minimize radiation damage, to align or rotate crystals for the best data collection, to decrease background noise, and to record all of the X-ray signal as completely and accurately as possible. Finally continued improvements in software help users with their data collection strategies so that they can obtain the most useful and complete information about their samples, even while directing the experiment from their home institutions.

Impact on Human Health

The purpose of this facility is to enhance our ability to visualize the three-dimensional structures of complex biological molecules. Many of the molecules are targets for drug design and understanding their structures will aid in the development of new pharmaceutical agents. In addition, knowledge of molecular structures allows us to better understand basic biological systems often resulting in the identification of new pharmaceutical targets.