Aug 3, 2021 – To reach the top of two pieces of state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar equipment, scientists climb spiral staircases around structures – each the size of two oversized stacked refrigerators.
The National Science Foundation’s $ 40 million investment is intended, in part, to advance health research and drug development.
Spectrometers work much the same way as MRI scanners, the magnetic resonance imaging machines used to take pictures to see inside the human body. But instead of taking pictures of people, the new machines will take pictures of molecules, says Jeffrey Hoch, PhD, of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biophysics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine at Farmington.
Nuclear imaging will allow the study of molecules, atom by atom, and to verify chemical reactions under various conditions. The larger the magnet of the machine, the finer the details it can study.
The technology will help researchers understand battery components, nanomaterials and surface coatings, and will open up a myriad of avenues for research, some yet to be imagined.
In less than 3 years, the University of Georgia at Athens and the University of Wisconsin at Madison will each have a state-of-the-art 1.1 GHz spectrometer and join the UConn School of Medicine to form the three pillars of the Network for Advanced Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Researchers in Georgia will study mixtures of substances and those in Wisconsin will study solids.
To use a spectrometer, someone climbs stairs wrapped around the machine and drops small tubes containing samples at the top. An “air lift” then transports them into the magnet, where the molecules can be isolated and studied, says Engin Serpersu, PhD, program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The United States lags behind Europe
There are only a handful of spectrometers, which can cost as much as $ 30 million each, in the United States, and outside researchers are rarely allowed access. So adding these two new machines will dramatically improve research, says Steven Ellis, PhD, who is also program director at NSF.
This is good news, as the United States has lagged behind Europe in ordering, installing and using this technology, he says. In fact, this mismatch was noted in a 2013 National Research Council report that highlighted the need for ultra-high-field nuclear imaging.
If the inability to keep up with advancements in commercial technology “continues, the United States is likely to lose its leadership role, as scientific issues of increased complexity and impact are resolved elsewhere,” the report said.
“I can not [overstate] the importance of making these instruments available to a greater number of users, ”explains Ellis. “If you want to know how a protein works, you really want to know how it’s folded, where all the atoms are, and how things interact with it.
For the first time, the technology will be available to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students, primarily undergraduate institutions, institutions serving minorities, and historically black colleges and universities, and “any kind of” establishment that cannot afford their own system, but could prepare samples and use the data, ”he explains. “It’s democratizing technology.”
The NSF award goes beyond spectrometers; it extends to cyber infrastructure, which includes the processing, storage and sharing of data. It also covers the development of protocols so that people can use knowledge bases to become experts.
Higher field instruments speed up data collection, which is important because biological samples are not always stable, Serpersu points out. And researchers can see how fast a single atom is moving, and “you can watch thousands of them simultaneously” with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) or isolate some to study them individually.
Potential clues for Alzheimer’s and COVID
The technology could improve the study of how proteins aggregate to cause neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Serpersu says.
It could also advance research on antivirals for diseases like COVID-19, Ellis says.
“If you want to interfere with spike protein binding, it helps to understand the structure of it and the structure of the receptor on the cell it binds to. Understanding these receptor structures can be very difficult because they don’t. do not crystallize well. Nuclear magnetic resonance is a better approach, “he says.
The network for advanced nuclear magnetic resonance begins with the three currently designated sites, but other centers are expected to join the network and share resources and data, Ellis says.
The $ 40 million scholarship does not cover the long-term costs of the program, so researchers will need to secure grants to cover the costs when they set aside time with the spectrometers.
“The idea is to allow them to be more competitive by working on modern instrumentation and to succeed in grant competitions,” explains Ellis.