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International team wins $2 million research grant

UC academic’s international team wins $2 million research grant for imaging single molecules

University of Canterbury Professor Rick Millane is one of an international team of researchers that has been awarded a NZ$2 million research grant by the Human Frontier Science Program to develop a novel method for imaging individual biomolecules with atomic resolution.

The research team will receive a total of US$1.35 million over three years. Along with Professor Millane from the University of Canterbury, the collaboration includes Professor Henry Chapman from the Centre for Free-Electron Laser Science, DESY (Germany), Professor Ned Seeman from New York University (USA), and Professor Trevor Forsyth from Keele University (UK) and the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble (France).

“This funding brings together a truly remarkable diversity of people, places and ideas, and we are very fortunate to have this opportunity,” Professor Millane, of UC College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, says.

The international collaboration is addressing the challenge of imaging single macromolecules with x-ray free-electron lasers (XFELs). These billion-dollar machines, driven by powerful particle accelerators, produce incredibly bright and short pulses of x-rays that can reveal the spatial structure of molecules with atomic resolution. Currently, this sort of investigation requires scientists to crystallise the molecules first. The tiny crystals diffract the x-rays, and from that diffraction pattern the molecule's structure can be calculated.

However, growing crystals from biomolecules – especially those of particular interest to science – is often a painstaking process, and sometimes not possible at all. A method to image biological macromolecules without having to crystallise them would be a significant advance to the field.

The team aims to engineer samples in a general way to make it easier to measure diffraction signals from them, and to interpret the signals. To this end, an extra structure will be added to each molecule that can act as a holographic reference to correctly interpret and combine diffraction data from many such particles.

“The work is at the very leading edge of technology development, and the project will help to train New Zealand students, scientists and engineers in this technology and will ultimately contribute to our understanding of disease processes and to the development of new drugs,” Professor Millane says.

The collaboration brings together essential expertise: Professor Chapman is an x-ray laser pioneer who has developed many methods and techniques that have become standards at XFEL facilities worldwide. Professor Seeman is a pioneer of nanotechnology using DNA molecules. Professor Forsyth is an expert on neutron and x-ray fibre diffraction and on obtaining structures from structured biological systems and in the biology and biochemistry of various systems including amyloids. Professor Millane, who was recently awarded the Royal Society of New Zealand’s T. K. Sidey Medal, is the world expert in phasing diffraction data ranging from crystallography to coherent imaging and fibre diffraction in between.

The Human Frontier Science Program ( aims to promote intercontinental collaboration and training in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research focused on the life sciences. Out of this year's 1073 proposals, only 30 projects were chosen for a grant.

The international Human Frontier Science Program Organisation (HFSPO) is based in Strasbourg, France, and receives financial support from the governments or research councils of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA, as well as from the European Union.


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