Detecting the molecular structure of a tiny protein using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) currently requires two things: a million-dollar machine the size of a massive SUV, and a large sample of the protein under study.
Now, researchers from MITs Center for Bits and Atoms report the development of a radically different approach to NMR. The new highly sensitive technique, which makes use of a microscopic detector, decreases by several orders of magnitude the amount of protein needed to measure molecular structure.
The new technology could ultimately lead to the proliferation of tabletop NMR devices in every research laboratory and medical office. Among other things, such devices could prove invaluable in diagnosing a variety of diseases.
"Its revolutionary," said Shuguang Zhang, one of the authors and associate director of MITs Center for Biological Engineering. "Its not just incremental progress."
The research team reports the work in the online and print editions of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of May 14. Lead author Yael Maguire, a former MIT graduate student who earned his Ph.D. for this work, will give a talk on it May 16 at the VII European Protein Symposium in Stockholm.
NMR, along with X-ray crystallography, is commonly used to determine the structure of proteins and other molecules. NMR probes normally consist of a coil that surrounds the sample being studied. The coil creates a magnetic field that interacts with the nuclear spin of atoms in the sample, and those interactions reveal how the atoms are connected.
With current NMR machines, you need about 1017 (more than a million billion) molecules of a protein to determine its molecular structure. Some researchers have tried to make tiny coils to study smaller samples, but it has proven very difficult to scale these to small sizes to analyze tiny samples and to create high throughput methods.