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03/13/2003 08:00:00

Caltech Receives $4 Million Grant for Cryoelectron Microscopy Laboratory

PASADENA, Calif. — The California Institute of Technology is the birthplace of structural biology which was invented by Linus Pauling in the 1940s. Unwilling to rest on its laurels, the Institute will seek out new frontiers in the field with the help of a $4 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to create a state-of-the-art cryoelectron microscopy laboratory at Caltech.

The present structural biology group at Caltech continues in the Pauling tradition, using the information obtained from high-resolution structures to understand the molecular basis of biological processes.

"Caltech is committed to making every effort to give our faculty the tools they need to be productive. This equipment will enable our researchers to push beyond current understandings of intracellular activity to gain a more complete understanding of the life cycle of a cell, which is critical to understanding intercellular dynamics and larger organic systems," said Caltech President David Baltimore.

The future of structural biology lies in bridging the microscopic resolution between the atomic scale (accessible through X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy) and the domain above 0.5 microns that is accessible via optical microscopy.

With cryoelectron microscopes, the tiny "specks" that make up a cell's machinery for manipulating DNA, making protein molecules, and interacting with the outside world come into focus. While the field of cryoelectron microscopy has been around for more than two decades, the equipment today and the computational methods associated with it are undergoing a revolution that allows new sorts of analyses and much higher resolution images, bordering on the low-resolution limits of X-ray crystallographic structures.

The grant will allow Caltech to purchase two cryoelectron microscopes capable of imaging biological material in an essentially native state. The first cools the sample to liquid nitrogen temperatures and will be used for rapid specimen screening. The second cools the samples to liquid helium temperatures (near absolute zero), and is in several respects a true prototype expected to deliver higher resolution images than have ever been obtainable before.

One of the key users of the microscopes will be Grant Jensen, an assistant professor of biology, who joined Caltech in 2002. His goal is to extend traditional structural biology to a cellular level in order to allow realistic computer simulations of whole cells in the future. This work can be thought of as a logical "next-step" after sequencing genomes because it aims to reveal how the various gene products come together to form protein "machines," and how those machines arrange themselves into the biochemical "assembly lines" that create life.

The Moore Foundation was formed in September 2000 by Gordon and Betty Moore in order to improve the quality of life for generations to come. Gordon Moore received his PhD in chemistry from Caltech in 1954 and went on to found the Intel Corporation. The foundation focuses on four major program areas: higher education, scientific research, the environment, and select San Francisco Bay area projects. The foundation's largest commitment to date has been the October 2001 pledge of $300 million to Caltech. This grant is one portion of that pledge.

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Written by Jill Perry