What Should You Do With the World’s Most Powerful Laser? Study Proteins, Naturally

Could unlock secrets to a quarter of all varieties with huge benefits to drug research

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Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest

X-ray free-electron lasers can create images (left) that accurately reflect the known structure of proteins determined by conventional modeling methods (right) — in this case, three bacteriorhodopsin proteins

Forget about making James Bond wince or shooting down drones, scientists have found a much more appropriate use for the world’s most powerful laser — understanding proteins. Researchers have employed the surprising tool to unlock the secrets of a quarter of all known varieties of the organic matter, previously overlooked because of the difficulty in studying them.

Knowledge about proteins helps in the development of new drugs, among many other things. The past century, however, their structures have only been possible to determine after the molecules have been stacked into a neat crystal — hence the name for the science, “crystallography.”

(MORE: 2014 is the International Year of Crystallography (‘What’s Crystallography?’ You Ask)‘)

Because of their inability to form crystals, though, some proteins have been close to impossible to study. Until now, that is, as researchers led by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories present their findings in the March issue of International Union of Crystallography Journal.

The research team has succeeded in producing the structure of a single layer of proteins, by firing super-bright x-rays with the LCLS free-electron laser at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Ca., on it for a few million billionths of a second.

Now, they will attempt to improve the resolution of their images and, using even shorter flashes, they may capture exactly how proteins change during a chemical reaction.

And that’s much more impressive than scaring a spy.