Free-electron laser facility gains UK funding for serial femtosecond crystallography system

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Funding from three UK institutes is to help construct a serial femtosecond crystallography system, which will form part of the instrumentation at the European XFEL, a high brilliance X-ray source planned for completion in 2017.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC), and the Wellcome Trust will contribute £5.64 million towards a user consortium at the European XFEL.

Over five years between 2014 and 2019, the funding will help to construct and use the Serial Femtosecond Crystallography end station (SFX), which is dedicated to high-throughput nanocrystallography and sample screening. The technique will be an important method for determining the structure of biological macromolecules, such as membrane proteins.

The European XFEL will generate ultrashort X-ray pulses that have similar properties to laser light. The free-electron laser will operate by accelerating bunches of electrons to high energies and then directing them through arrangements of magnets. The radiation emitted will be amplified to pulses that occur at 27,000 times a second and have a brilliance a billion times higher than conventional X-ray sources.

The free-electron laser will be situated in Hamburg, Germany, with operation planned for 2017 at a cost of €1.5 billion.

SFX will form a part of the Single Particles, Clusters, and Biomolecules (SPB) scientific instrument at the European XFEL. SFX will use the X-ray free-electron laser beam transmitted through the SPB end-station, allowing simultaneous measurements at both stations.

A hub for scientists who wish to use SFX will also be established at the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire to train and prepare UK researchers.

Commenting on the funding for the SFX, European XFEL managing director Massimo Altarelli said: ‘This will further advance the European XFEL’s outstanding opportunities in the field of biomolecular imaging and also strengthen cooperation between British and other international researchers in one of the exciting new research areas opened up by our facility.’

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