Time-resolved X-ray crystallography simplified

Infographic on how X-RAY crystallography works. IMAGE: Tobias Wüstefeld
IMAGE: Tobias Wüstefeld


Speeding up time-resolved X-ray crystallography with EMBL beamline P14

An international collaboration has developed a new method to observe the molecular foundations of biology, with the help of beamline P14 at EMBL Hamburg. The new ‘hit-and-return’ method simplifies and accelerates time-resolved X-ray crystallography experiments, allowing many snapshots to be recorded in a single experimental session. These snapshots can then be assembled into a time-lapse sequence of the structural changes that occur during a biomolecule’s reactions.

Life is dynamic – and so are its molecular building blocks. The motions and structural changes of biomolecules are fundamental to their function. One method for understanding them is time-resolved X-ray crystallography, in which snapshots of a biological molecule are taken as it reacts. However, this is extremely time-consuming: a single structural snapshot typically requires several hours of data collection.

Infographic on how X-RAY crystallography works

IMAGE: Tobias Wüstefeld

The ‘hit-and-return’ method is a lot faster, and can provide about one snapshot per hour. This makes it better tailored to the study of biologically relevant reaction time-scales, which are on the order of milliseconds to seconds or even minutes, and can reveal the structural changes relevant to (for example) the turnover of a drug. The far less time-consuming nature of the new method will allow many more researchers to carry out time-resolved crystallography studies.

EMBL group leader Thomas Schneider and his team have been involved from the start in laying the groundwork to establish a programme of research, development and user services dedicated to time-resolved crystallography at the PETRA III light source on the DESY campus in Hamburg. In collaboration with the group of Arwen Pearson at the University of Hamburg and with funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), they are currently building a second end station on P14 dedicated to these types of experiments.

This paper was a collaboration between researchers from the Atomically Resolved Dynamics Department of the MPSD (Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg, Germany; the University of Toronto, Canada; and ETH Zurich, Switzerland. X-ray diffraction data were collected on EMBL beamline P14 at PETRA III (DESY, Hamburg).

  • This text is an edited version of the press release published by the MPSD (Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg.