Intense x-rays to shine light on viruses

Monday 18th February 2013
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The Diamond Light Source near Oxford is to become a world centre for studying the structure of viruses and bacteria.
Diamond is the UK's national synchrotron facility, and will aim to study the structure of bacteria that can cause some of the most serious diseases.

It uses intense x-rays to reveal the molecular and atomic make-up of objects, and will embrace this capability to produce detailed images of Containment Level 3 pathogens, which are responsible for illnesses such as Aids, hepatitis and certain types of flu.

Level 3 is the second most serious infectious agent, with the more serious strands such as Ebola only allowed in the most secure government facilities.

Dave Stuart, the life sciences director at Diamond and a professor of structural biology at Oxford University told BBC News: "Viruses, as you know, are sort of tiny nanomachines and you can't see them in a normal microscope.

"But with the crystallography and X-ray techniques we use, we are able to get about 10,000 times the resolution of the normal light microscope."

He added that this technique would allow scientists to not only view viruses, but view them in immense detail, down to individual atoms, opening up the possibility of using modern drug-design techniques to produce more effective pharmaceuticals.

The technology, known as a synchrotron, works by accelerating electrons in a giant magnetic ring so that they travel close to the speed of light.

As these particles go round the circle, they begin to lose energy, producing intense x-rays.

The facility has already been used to study other pathogens of lower risk, such as the Human Enterovirus 71 (EV71), which causes foot and mouth disease.

By way of using these intense x-rays, researchers discovered that the virus used a breathing-like motion in order to start the infection process.

They also found the small molecule it picks up from the body to shift itself from one state to another.

Dr Stuart said: "That molecule must be lost to cause an infection, but now that we can see in atomic detail what that molecule looks like, we can try to design a synthetic version that will attach more strongly.

"That would stop the breathing and stop the infection process."

Written by Matthew Horton

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