Funding received for novel laser instruments at Central Laser Facility in the UK

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A grant announced on 18 December by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) will pay for the LIFEtime laser instrument in STFC’s Central Laser Facility (CLF) Research Complex at Harwell in the UK. The instrument is expected to provide scientists with vital information about the UV light-induced DNA damage that drives skin cancer. A second grant, providing a total of £1.5 million funding, will pay for a super-resolution microscope for the CLF, which can be used to study the function of almost any organelle or sub-unit within a cell.

Looking at the inner workings of cells and proteins and characterising the very subtle changes taking place within them, is fundamental to understanding diseases such as cancer and to finding out how plants can develop resistance to attack from bacteria that can otherwise destroy them. Using lasers is one way to examine them with this level of detail.

The LIFEtime instrument on the CLF’s Ultra facility will use ultrafast lasers to record on the same instrument, at the same time, both fast and slow measurements of changes taking place within a sample so that they can be compared. Looking at a sample over different timescales, from the very fast initial reaction that occurs when a laser hits the sample (less than one million millionth of a second) all the way to the ‘slower’ (milliseconds to seconds) follow-on reaction happening in the aftermath, can reveal processes that would otherwise be undetectable. These processes could uncover information about how bacteria and plants respond to light and how DNA is damaged.

Professor Mike Towrie from the Central Laser Facility, said: ‘Sometimes experiments have to be repeated to gather information at both fast and slow timescales and there is the risk of irreversible damage to samples. For something as delicate as a short DNA base or protein you want to limit potential damage as much as possible. LIFEtime will enable reactions across both fast and slow timescales to be measured at the same time, saving time, money and of course the samples.’

The other technology being funded by BBSRC is a new super-resolution microscope for a complex set up of lasers and microscopes, called Octopus because of its eight microscope ‘arms’. The microscope will enable scientists to study in real time, almost any organelle, or sub-unit within a cell by using ‘stimulated emission depletion microscopy’, where individual cells are lit up with lasers.

Gathering information for developing ‘nerve guidance conduits’ (NGC) which are used to bridge the gap in nerve injuries, where the damage prevents the nerves from growing back, is one way in which the microscope will be used.

Another area of research will be to monitor the behaviour of molecules in plants as they respond to bacteria attacks to understand how plants can be developed to be more resistant to attack, reducing the requirement for pesticides.

Work looking at the interactions of special frameworks or ‘scaffolds’ with cells, which are being used to re-generate tissue and repair bone in an ageing population, will also be possible as a result of the grant.

The grants totalling around £1.5 million from BBSRC make up 15 per cent of the £10 million total grants announced by BBSRC on 18 December.