Mini-Synchrotron Will Accelerate Molecular Studies

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Scientists use microscopes for many purposes, but if they want to see the individual atoms that make up a molecule, they rely on high-intensity X-ray beams. Until recently, the only way to generate such intense beams was by speeding electrons through large rings of magnets. The facilities that produce these beamlines are called synchrotrons, and they are enormous, often exceeding the size of a football field. Only a handful of them exist nationwide.

Soon, scientists will be able to routinely produce powerful X-ray beams in their own laboratories. Researchers at Lyncean Technologies, Inc., in Palo Alto, California, have developed a compact synchrotron that can generate a pencil-thin beam of X rays comparable in quality to those at traditional beamlines. The first such mini-synchrotron will be installed at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, in 2007.

This new technology grew out of the Protein Structure Initiative, a National Institute of General Medical Sciences-funded effort aimed at speeding protein structure determination. The compact machine has great potential to transform biomedicine by drastically reducing the time and cost needed to study the properties of proteins and other biological molecules.