Researchers can now ‘go where no synchrotron has gone before’

First users have now been welcomed by Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron light source on its new VMXm beamlin. The Versatile Macromolecular Crystallography micro/nanofocus (VMXm) beamline becomes the 32nd operational beamline to open its doors to users, completing the portfolio of seven beamlines dedicated to macromolecular crystallography.

The unique VMXm beamline represents a significant landmark for Diamond. It is a specialist tuneable micro/nanofocus macromolecular crystallography (MX) beamline, with an X-ray beam size of less than 0.5 microns, allowing even the tiniest of samples to be analysed. Integrated into the ‘in vacuum’ sample environment is a scanning electron microscope, making VMXm a hybrid X-ray/cryoEM instrument for detecting and measuring data from nanocrystals. VMXm is aimed at research applications where the production of significant quantities of protein and crystals is difficult.

Dr Ivo Tews from Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton and joint Diamond-Southampton PhD student Rachel Bolton have been using the state-of-the-art beamline to investigate proteins involved in nutrient uptake of photosynthetic or cyanobacteria. They would like to understand how these phytoplankton thrive under scarce nutrient conditions.

The ocean bacterium Prochlorococcus can produce four gigatons of fixed carbon per annum, which is comparable to the net primary production of the world’s agriculture industry, and constitutes a substantial biomass on Earth. VXMm’s first invited project is therefore of immense global significance, with implications for biotechnology and biofuels production.

Dr Tews’ team used VMXm to investigate proteins involved in the scavenging of iron from the environment. Their project is embedded with work at the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton to understand the efficiency of the bacterial metabolism and of nutrient uptake. The team had previously taken Prochlorococcus samples from deep in the ocean, from depths of over 5,000m below the surface, and acquired samples from particularly nutrient-poor regions of the world’s oceans in order to study microorganism adaptation. The research carried out on VMXm is focussed on iron homeostasis, ultimately leading to a better understanding of why these organisms are so good at surviving in resource-poor areas.

Ivo Tews says: "The protein crystals investigated contain iron and are very sensitive to X-ray radiation induced damage. I was very excited to see that complete data with minimal damage could be collected from very few micro-crystals, requiring very little material!"

Dr Tews was a member of the proposal team for the construction of VMXm, understanding the significance of the new instrument to research projects like this one. VMXm is managed and operated by a dedicated team of scientists at Diamond, including Principal Beamline Scientist Dr Gwyndaf Evans, senior beamline scientist Dr Jose Trincao, senior support scientist Dr Anna Warren, and postdoctoral research associates Dr Emma Beale and Dr Adam Crawshaw.

Dr Gwyndaf Evans notes that: "VMXm will allow researchers to push synchrotron data measurement beyond the previously explored limits of crystal size. It’s also a significant milestone for the Diamond design and construction team: making such a complex instrument work so well at the first attempt is a remarkable achievement, and they should be immensely proud of themselves. We are now looking forward to really exploring the limits of what VMXm is capable of and using it to answer important biological questions."

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