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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Examining proteins at an atomic level could help combat diseases

Published: 27 November 2012

Lecturer in Structural Biology Dr Ivo Tews believes a better knowledge of the atomic structure of key biological molecules could hold the key to understanding and treating many of the world’s diseases, such as malaria or asthma

Lecturer in Structural Biology
Dr Ivo Tews

His research at the Institute for Life Sciences involves the analysis of complex protein molecules. Although their atomic structure cannot be seen by microscopes, they can be examined if the molecules are turned into crystals. These crystals are then analysed using powerful  X-ray sources known as synchrotrons. Dr Tews' group is part of a consortium, which proposes to build sophisticated new equipment at the Diamond Light Source national synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire, to be operational in 2018. "This source will enable researchers to analyse smaller and more challenging samples and gives the UK the cutting edge in this technology," Ivo says.

Scientific breakthroughs in the 1950s saw DNA and haemoglobin molecules visualised for the first time. Research in this area has depended heavily on technology advances over the past decades. In recent years, seven Nobel prizes were awarded in the field, including two UK scientists. US researchers Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka won the Chemistry prize 2012 for their work on G-protein-coupled receptors that hold great promise for future drug development as they constitute nearly half of human drug targets; the 2009 prize went to US researcher Tom Steitz, Israelian Ada Yonath, and Venki Ramakrishnan from Cambridge for their groundbreaking research on the ribosome, the complex cellular machine that can synthesize proteins.

Research in this field is to be further transformed as part of Diamond's  phase III of development. This major investment  will result in the creation of 10 additional experimental areas, known as beamlines. In a synchrotron, electrons are accelerated to near light-speed to generate brilliant beams of light from infra-red to X-rays for academic and industry research. "New optics, detector technology and automation revolutionise the way we work", explains Dr Tews. Southampton and Diamond Light Source fund a PhD to look at malarial proteins that synthesise vitamins. "We study the chemical reaction these proteins catalyse, which is prerequisite to drug development," he adds.

Diamond Light Source is the UK’s national synchrotron facility
Diamond Light Source*

The University of Southampton, the Institute for Life Sciences, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have invested £250K in the latest nanodrop technology at the University's Centre for Biological Sciences which enables researchers to grow crystals from biological material. While undergraduate and postgraduate students are working on the equipment, it also supports research by many collaborating groups in the bio-medical community at Southampton.

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Notes for editors

*Image Courtesy Diamond Light Source

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