Big investment, tiny particles and a giant leap for BNL

Small wonders: New York State is providing $15 million for a new cryo-electron microscope at Brookhaven National Lab.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is stepping up its electromicroscopy game, in a big way.

The fiscal year 2017 New York State budget includes $15 million for the Upton laboratory to purchase and install a cryo-electron microscope, which will work in tandem with the National Synchrotron Light Source II, the world’s brightest synchrotron light source.

Cryo-EM: Imaging a larger world.

The Cryo-EM will be the backbone of BNL’s new Long Island Facility for Electromicroscopy, a national user facility that will provide revolutionary Cryo-EM capabilities to an emerging user community.

The laboratory announced its electromicroscopy facility plans Thursday. At the press event, BNL Director Doon Gibbs said the new facility will “give a big boost to Long Island’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, and have a positive impact on people’s quality of life.”

“The cryo-electron microscope is an advanced imaging technology that will significantly accelerate scientists’ understanding of molecular structures and processes,” Gibbs said. “That includes impacts in understanding disease and, ultimately, also in drug discovery.”

The state-of-the-art device will help scientists develop quicker and more efficient disease treatments by imaging biomolecules in groundbreaking ways – an unprecedented advantage for life-sciences projects and medical researchers, according to laboratory insiders and supporters.

State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who helped secure the Cryo-EM funding, noted the benefits the machine would provide for regional bioscience research.

“It has been a dream of mine to get Brookhaven, Cold Spring Harbor and Stony Brook to work together,” LaValle said Thursday.

Doon Gibbs: Thinking positive.

The world-class research institutions, of course, have collaborated before. When Albany tasked each of the 10 statewide Regional Economic Development Councils to come up with a primary focus, the Long Island REDC put its chips on life sciences – an area well explored by the Long Island Bioscience Hub, a consortium of research institutions featuring BNL, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Stony Brook University’s Center for Biotechnology and Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.

Brookhaven Lab also has a well-documented history in shared microscopy. In addition to its work with SBU and the Simons Center for Data Analysis at CSHL, BNL’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials has initiated technical and scientific partnerships with Johns Hopkins University and Yale University, among others.

But nanoscale-level research will take a quantum forward leap with the new Cryo-EM. Originally developed to prevent radiation damage to biological specimens, cryo-electron microscopy allows specimens to be observed in their natural environment at a “cryogenic temperature” ranging from minus 150 degrees Celsius to minus 460 degrees Celsius – a.k.a. “absolute zero,” the temperature at which molecular motion theoretically ceases.

Recent advances in transmission electron microscopy will enable scientists to combine this progressive form of microscopic observation with X-ray crystallography, an imaging method that has been used at BNL for decades.

“Few prescription drugs have been approved by the FDA for use in the U.S. in the last 20 years without a crystallographic study of their structure by X-rays,” Gibbs noted.

Combining the two imaging methods will create a more complete picture and facilitate the development of new molecular entities, the main thrust of biotechnology.

“This is the world’s leading tool in cryo-electron microscopy that we want to purchase,” James Misewich, BNL’s associate director for Energy and Photon Sciences, told Innovate LI. “It’s absolutely at the cutting edge.”