Shining a light on infection

Using its new lab – Crystal – the UK’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source, has become the first and only place in Europe where pathogens requiring Containment Level 3 – including serious viruses such as those responsible for AIDS, Hepatitis and some types of flu – can be analysed at atomic and molecular level using synchrotron light.

Aerial image of Diamond Light Source

Aerial image of Diamond Light Source

This special light allows scientists to study virus structures at intense levels of detail and this new Crystal facility extends that capability to many viruses that have a major global impact on human and animal health. Studying pathogens in this way has the potential to open up new paths for the development of therapeutic treatments and vaccines.

Diamond already has a strong track record of studying viruses at lower levels of containment. In 2012, scientists determined the structure of the virus that causes hand-foot-and-mouth disease, which can cause severe central nervous system disease in children and poses serious public health threats across the Asia-Pacific region. Some 1.7 million cases were reported by the Chinese Ministry of Health during 2010, and there is no vaccine or therapy available.

An Anglo-Chinese collaboration used the facilities at Diamond to solve the structure of the Human Enterovirus 71 (EV71), which is the root cause of the disease.

EV71's structure

EV71’s structure

Using synchrotron light, the team were able to visualise the virus in different states and collect a series of structures, from which they were able to uncover a detailed picture of the virus’s actions in sequence. Rather than being a rigid object, the virus appears to actually breathe. Such visualisation requires specialist microscopes 10,000 times more powerful than standard laboratory microscopes.

Crystal enables researchers to rapidly visualise viruses in their entirety and at incredible scales. The facility’s brilliant beams of X-rays allow scientists to study crystallised virus particles, and so produce a comprehensive 3D image of the virus structure. By identifying the virus structure in atomic detail, scientists can target research into vaccines and anti-viral drugs.

Says Dr Katherine McAuley, science leader for the facility:

“Crystal is a major advance, not just for the UK, but for Europe at large. We are introducing a step change in research capabilities, so that more complex studies can be undertaken in a swift and effective way. The unique capabilities that the facility offers are expected to draw scientists from around the world, and establish the nation’s synchrotron as a hub of world-leading research into disease prevention.”

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