Public Release: 

X-ray microscopy seen as next wave in structural biology research

High resolution images of cells, viruses, macromolecules at AAAS meeting

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Snapshots of proteins in repose might someday be replaced by views of proteins caught in action, if researchers presenting at AAAS on Friday Feb. 17 have their way. Researchers will explore how X-ray imaging can surpass X-ray crystallography for gathering detailed structural and functional information, even going as far as CAT-scan-like tomography of cells at the nanometer scale.

X-ray crystallography has served structural biologists well -- researchers who painstakingly purify individual proteins, DNA or other molecules of interest, form them into crystals and bombard them with X-rays to learn what they look like, how they work and how they've evolved over time. But with more than 60,000 unique molecules crystallized, some researchers, such as PNNL technologist Louis Terminello, say the ones relatively easy-to-crystallize are out of the way and biologists need a new tool for structural biology. Terminello has assembled this symposium to explore X-ray imaging as that next powerful tool.

"X-ray imaging allows you to peer through a collection of cells and tissues and keep things as close to their natural state as possible," said Terminello. "Other methods require processes that perturb reality. With the advent of high spatially resolved X-ray technology, we are just on the edge of X-ray microscopy that can show us the architecture inside cells." Terminello hopes the X-ray microscope will transform structural biology the way van Leeuwenhoek's microscope created the field of biology centuries ago.

  • Organizer: Louis Terminello, lead scientist for PNNL's Chemical Imaging Initiative, an R&D effort to allow scientists to go from observing to manipulating systems on a molecular level.
  • Anton Barty, researcher at the Centre for Free Electron Laser Science, Hamburg, Germany. Barty will discuss how brief, intense X-ray pulses from free-electron lasers can record high-resolution structural information from biological objects such as viruses or large molecules before the onset of radiation damage.
  • Carolyn Larabell, biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, San Francisco. Larabell will present high-resolution 3-D tomographic reconstructions of cells based on her work with soft X-ray tomography (SXT), a nanometer-scale technology similar to CAT scans. Larabell has used SXT to study the effects of host-parasite interactions, antimicrobial agents on pathogenic yeast and how DNA and other molecules are organized within the nucleus of mammalian cells.
  • Chris Jacobsen, physicist at Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University, Ill. Jacobsen will discuss using hard X-rays (those used to detect broken bones) to view trace elements in cells in three dimensions. Placing metals in context within cells will help clarify their role in health and disease.


REFERENCE: "Understanding Cellular Machinery Through X-Ray Imaging," Feb. 17, 10-11:30 a.m., Room 208-209, West Building, Vancouver Convention Center.

Media contact: Mary Beckman,, cell phone at conference: 208-520-1415.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is a Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory where interdisciplinary teams advance science and technology and deliver solutions to America's most intractable problems in energy, the environment and national security. PNNL employs 4,800 staff, has an annual budget of nearly $1.1 billion, and has been managed by Ohio-based Battelle since the lab's inception in 1965. Follow PNNL on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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