May 31, 2017 | News

Single Particle Imaging, a doily and the FameLab Australia semi-finals!

Daniel Langley, Imaging CoE postdoc based at the La Trobe University node, made it to the FameLab Australia semi-finals, held at the Melbourne Museum. Daniel spoke about the Single Particle Imaging Initiative and the important role the Imaging CoE is playing in this international collaboration.

Daniel said that the experience made him think about the language and terminology he uses.

“I didn’t realise how much jargon we actually use. Doing this made me think about how to cut down the jargon and speak in plain English. And, it forced me come up with analogies to describe my science,” he said.

He didn’t leave it at analogies though; Daniel used props.

“For protein folding, I explained to the audience that a protein is like a piece of string. I pulled a piece of string out and I said: ‘we can take a piece of string, fold it, twist it and tie it in knots: each one has a different form and a different function.’ I continued: ‘but proteins also make very complex patterns’ and I pulled a doily out of my pocket! I added that, ‘just like this doily is made of a single piece of string to make this a complex two-dimensional pattern, proteins fold to make three dimensional structures. Understanding these shapes informs us about how they function” Daniel said.

Daniel has a background in nanotech, physics, chemistry and biology and he is using all this expertise in the CoE to work on sample delivery for X-ray Free Electron Lasers (XFEL). He scatters intense pulses of light from molecules and then looks at their shadows to see how things are built.

At the FameLab semi-finals, Daniel tells us that one of the judges asked him: “So, you’re talking about single particle imaging? And, that means taking one protein molecule and putting it into a vacuum chamber and imaging it?” To which, of course, Daniel replied “Yes that is exactly what we are trying!”

The judge told Daniel “that’s really difficult”. And then he turned to the audience and said: “That’s really, REALLY, hard!” Daniel thanked him for pointing this out.

“I was then asked about how long it was going to take to make molecular movies. To which I held up my piece of doily and said ‘how long is a piece of string?!’ But more seriously, we are currently using XFEL for imaging large molecules, but in order to get to protein molecules I estimate somewhere between five and 20 years away. It’s hard to predict.”

Daniel explained that the Imaging CoE is trying to remove a bottle next from protein structure determination.

“Since 1976, the world has determined 125,000 protein structures. Pretty impressive,” he began. “The human body contains an estimated 250,000 – 1,000,000 unique protein structures. And currently, we have determined about 48,000 of them. Scientists determine around 10,000 new protein structures a year, so at the current rate it will take between 30 and 90 years to determine all protein structures in the body. If we can achieve single particle imaging we will be able to cut decades of the time required to understand the building blocks of life.”

This was a fun exercise, Daniel said. Looking up the stats; working out our rate of progression and making the link as to why we need the techniques our Imaging CoE is trying to develop.