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Instrument pushes Colgate to new level of research

By Tim O'Keeffe on May 26, 2009
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video icon A sophisticated instrument tucked in a Wynn Hall laboratory is providing Colgate researchers with critical information about the structure of small molecules and proteins, data that support the most advanced research practices in chemistry and biochemistry.

The instrument, a dual-source X-ray diffractometer, was commissioned in December after the university was awarded a highly competitive grant of $410,000 from the National Science Foundation.

Chemistry professor Roger Rowlett said Colgate is the first undergraduate institution in the nation to acquire such an instrument.

“It provides our undergraduates with direct exposure and training to research methodologies that are essential to protein chemistry,” he said. “We can now more easily tackle complex problems that our peer institutions would find impractical or impossible.”

Rowlett and his research assistant, Katherine van den Heever ’09, recently demonstrated how the diffractometer works.

A crystal, composed of a highly ordered array of protein molecules, is viewed on the instrument’s video camera. It is roughly the size of a pinhead, or about 100 microns in diameter.

Katherine van den Heever ’09, a biochemistry major, works with the dual source X-ray diffractometer at Wynn Hall. (Photo by Andy Daddio)

The crystal is shot through with an X-ray beam, scattering it in many directions.

By looking at the many diffraction patterns and running them through a series of computational models, Rowlett and van den Heever can turn what appears like spots on a computer screen into a picture of the protein’s atomic structure.

Determining the molecular structure of proteins is critical to understanding how they operate, and that knowledge is vital in the study of diseases and for developing new pharmaceuticals.

“Proteins are the molecules that do the dirty work in all living organisms. So understanding how they work is fundamental to many things we’re interested in,” said Rowlett.

Before Colgate acquired the diffractometer, researchers would have to travel to Brookhaven National Laboratory in Stony Brook, N.Y., or a similar lab to conduct tests on crystal samples.

“It’s been great to have this instrument here so we have access to it all the time,” said van den Heever, a biochemistry major. “I’ve gained a lot of good experience working on a difficult technique.”

Rowlett was the lead investigator on the NSF proposal, working with fellow chemistry professors Anthony Chianese and Rick Geier, who will be able to use the instrument for their research of smaller molecules.

Rowlett is excited by the research conducted so far and the potential for further collaborative studies.

In fact, he will be leading a “crystallography camp” or training program in July for about a dozen visiting faculty and students who are eager to utilize the power of the diffractometer.

“This instrument puts Colgate on the leading edge of undergraduate research capability,” said Rowlett. “We’re excited about the possibilities it provides us.”

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