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New laser zeroes in on molecules

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Staff Writers
Hamburg, Germany (UPI) Feb 2, 2011
European scientists say a new X-ray laser may let them watch individual molecules in action during processes from brain-cell activity to photosynthesis.

Researchers at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg, Germany, say the new technique should be widely useful for investigating protein molecules and the structure and activity of drugs, molecules for fuels and other materials, reported Wednesday.

"This will be extremely interesting in just about all biological systems," says physicist Henry Chapman, a member of the two international teams reporting on the technique in the journal Nature. "After all, the reason we want to obtain high-resolution 3-D images of proteins is to work out how they work and what they do."

The new Linac Coherent Light Source X-ray laser, which came online in 2009 at the National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., is so much brighter and faster than previous lasers that researchers hope the technique may reveal molecules interacting in their native habitat.

"The biggest problem has been membrane-bound proteins -- they are very hard to get a detailed view of," says biophysicist Sebastian Doniach of Stanford University, who was not involved in the research. "But these are the proteins that are really important for understanding how things enter the cell, how cells such as nerves signal, how drugs interact with a target cell."

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