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Brookhaven National Lab to add research center, 2 super-powerful microscopes

A rendering of the center to be built

A rendering of the center to be built at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

Ground has been broken on a state-of-the-art research center at Brookhaven National Laboratory to house two advanced electron microscopes that will allow imaging of biological structures in unprecedented detail.

"We hope to have the microscopes  installed in the new building in the early part of 2020," said Sean McSweeney, who will serve as director of the new Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center on Brookhaven's campus.

The new center and both microscopes are being financed by Empire State Development's Transformative Investment Program for $15 million. The aim is to provide an advanced research space that ultimately will allow Brookhaven scientists and visiting researchers from the United States and beyond to broach novel scientific inquiries using the two instruments. Empire State Development is the state's chief economic development agency.

McSweeney, who is also director of the photon science division at Brookhaven, said he and his colleagues at the lab are excited about the research possibilities that await with two cryo-electron microscopes.

The devices are a breakthrough concept in microscopy because they generate exceptional details in images of biological structures, McSweeney said.

Electron microscopy, in general, is characterized by high magnification and resolution but differs fundamentally from standard microscopes because instead of light, accelerated electron beams are passed through specimens to generate an image.  Electron microscopes have been used for decades.

Cryo-electron microscopy — cryo-EM — is a recent giant leap beyond other types of electron microscopes, allowing researchers to capture specimen images at supercold — cryogenic — temperatures, about minus 189 degrees Fahrenheit, and in some instances, lower still.

"It's like taking snapshots, many thousands of images," McSweeney said of a process that allows scientists to reveal intimate three-dimensional details of biological structures such as proteins and protein complexes.

Proteins are the basic building blocks of all human tissues, and these infinitesimal structures are capable of spiraling, folding and refolding in countless ways. Understanding them at the atomic level, McSweeney said, can uncloak nature's deepest secrets about the states of health and disease. 

Moreover, exploring biological structures under extraordinarily frigid conditions allows atoms to remain intact as scientists eavesdrop on them via the device, McSweeney said. 

"This is technology that has received a lot of recognition over the last several years," McSweeney said, noting that cryo-EM even aided a New York scientist who won a Nobel Prize.

Joachim Frank, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia University in Manhattan, shared the 2017 Nobel in chemistry with two other scientists for developing cryo-EM as a method of studying biological structures in high resolutions. 

In past decades, researchers turned to X-ray crystallography as a way to discern molecular structures. Cryo-EM facilitates the study of molecules that eluded the older science. 

“Cryo-electron microscopy can significantly accelerate scientists’ understanding of molecular structures and processes, leading to positive impacts in understanding disease and the discovery of new drugs," said Doon Gibbs, director of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Legislators see the new developments at Brookhaven as having an impact beyond the basic science.

"This state investment will support thousands of jobs and create a culture of innovation right here in Suffolk County," County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement.

Suffolk County Legis. Al Krupski, whose district includes Brookhaven National Laboratory, envisions those same advantages, but the potential boon to medical research as well.

McSweeney is excited because the research that can be performed via cryo-EM will, in many instances, allow scientists to image the basic machinery of life itself: "We’re trying to understand function by better understanding structure," he said.

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