Molecular architects of another kind

March 4, 2005

Brussels, 03 Mar 2005

A project to create a common platform for researchers working in the field of 'biological crystallography' is underway thanks to EU funding via the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The results of which should improve understanding of complex molecular processes.

The ability of post-genomic research in biology and medicine to deliver substantial improvements in human health depends on progress in understanding complex biological processes at the molecular level, according to the team behind the EU-funded project BIOXHIT (Biocrystallography on a Highly Integrated Technology Platform). But before this can happen, scientists must build accurate three-dimensional (3D) pictures of the structures of the molecules involved.

Biological crystallography is how they do this. Specialists in this field create 3D architectural models of biological molecules. Without which it would be almost impossible to understand biological processes, such as the way proteins and other molecules behave in cells, or to design new drugs that will affect their functions. The models are generally produced by bombarding crystallised proteins with high-powered X-Rays generated at huge synchrotron facilities. But these facilities were not geared up to cope with the huge demands put on them in the post-genomic era.

The four-year project, which got underway in January last year thanks to €10 million in FP6 funds, plans to take stock of the best current technologies at major European centres for research in structural biology and then integrate these into a single standardised platform. Biocrystallography is a complex area that used to be limited to a small number of specialists. But BIOXHIT plans to make it easier for researchers in all areas of biology to study molecular structures, even allowing them to send samples and work remotely.

Training is key

Kim Henrick of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton (UK), one of the project partners, said in a statement that the components necessary to solve molecular structures are already in place. "But these tools were not originally designed for the high-throughput work required today because of the number of molecules discovered in the many genome sequencing projects," he stressed.

One immediate effect of BIOXHIT will be the time saved in obtaining each structure. Using robots, for example, to perform automated tasks quickly, consistently and with high precision can replace time-consuming manual steps.

"The project specifically calls for improvements in the process by which samples are handled, the equipment needed to detect X-Ray patterns, and the computers and software needed to model structures. A result of this will be to attract more researchers to work on protein structures," Henrick said.

In fact, training and mobility activities are vital for the more than 20 partners in the project, which is funded by the FP6 thematic area 'Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health'. Training, implementation and dissemination centres will also be created outside the participating laboratories to help spread know-how. Training on biocrystallography technologies will take place at synchrotron facilities, and be extended to localised centres elsewhere in Europe.

DG Research
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