How cold! New partnership to use chilled neutrons

Cell membrane researchers are eagerly bracing for a long-awaited cold wave. A new partnership involving the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the University of California-Irvine (UCI) and other organizations will use beams of super-chilled neutrons to probe the elusive structure and interactions of cell membranes and their components, gathering information key to improving disease diagnosis and treatment.

Led by UCI biophysicist Stephen White, the Cold Neutrons for Biology and Technology (CNBT) team received $5 million from the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health to build the nation's first neutron-beam research station fully dedicated to biological membrane experiments. To be located at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) in Gaithersburg, Md., the CNBT team will exploit the NIST center's ability to generate high-quality beams of "cold" neutrons. Stripped from the nuclei of heavy atoms and then cooled by liquid hydrogen, these uncharged particles are ideally suited for exploring the disordered, continually changing landscape of cell membranes.

"Cold neutrons provide a powerful tool for studying cell membrane systems," says White, "but the demand for beam time at the handful of neutron facilities in the United States is so great that the tool was nearly unavailable for this kind of research. Yet, for many challenges in biology and medicine, neutron probes offer the only realistic hope for answers."

For example, White says that only neutron probes can glimpse the process by which protein fragments, or peptides, are assembled into membrane- borne sentries that ward off harmful microorganisms.

To ease the neutron crunch for biologists, NIST offered to open a new port in a beamline at its NCNR. White then organized the CNBT partnership, which includes researchers from UCI, NIST, the University of Pe

Contact: Mark Bello (NIST)
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

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