While Sydney is being transformed into a glittering canvas of light during Vivid, other forms of high energy light are being used by Australian science infrastructure to answer important scientific questions relating to human health during the International Year of Light 2015.
Light for displays used at events such as Vivid are based on laser technologies. Synchrotron light is a form of electromagnetic radiation that is created when electrons are accelerated to almost the speed of light and deflected through magnetic fields around a curved path. It is unique in its intensity and brilliance, a million times brighter than the sun.
The Australian Synchrotron, a national world-class facility located in Melbourne, produces high energy X-rays that can be used to reveal an extraordinary level of detail at the atomic and molecular level.
Synchrotron light is filtered and adjusted to travel down beamlines to experimental workstations where it can be used for research. The Synchrotron’s macromolecular crystallography (MX) beamlines will soon reach the milestone of having been used to identify 1000 3D protein structures since 2007. Once discovered, the protein structures reside in the Worldwide Protein Data Bank, a global resource for researchers.
Proteins play countless roles throughout the biological world, from catalysing chemical reactions to building the structure of all living things.
Although there have been many significant developments, three projects that involved determining the structure of proteins using the Australian Synchrotron’s MX beamlines had particular global importance and benefit to human health.
Collaborative research teams have used the technique to produce the first 3D images of insulin ‘docking’ within an insulin receptor on the cell surface; a blood protein that dissolves blood clots and cleans up damaged tissues; and an assassin protein that is key to the body’s defence mechanisms.
An Australian-led research team obtained the world’s first 3D pictures of the insulin binding protein that enables cells to take up sugar from the blood. The result clarified the insulin binding process, which had been under investigation for more than 20 years.
The finding, published in pre-eminent scientific journal Nature in January 2013, is expected to lead to the development of improved forms of insulin for Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
Researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne performed experiments at the protein crystallography stations at the Australian Synchrotron and obtained highly detailed images that show how the insulin and insulin receptor change their shape in order to bind with each other. If the docking process doesn’t take place, cells can’t take up sugar from the blood and convert into energy.
Meanwhile, a century old scientific question about how enzymes work to dissolve blood clots and clean up damaged tissue was answered by Monash University researchers using the Australian Synchrotron MX beamlines in March 2012.
Identifying the crystal structure of the blood protein plasminogen, which assists in dissolving blood clots and is implicated in some cancers, was crucial to understanding the mechanism of action of such processes. The finding, published in journal, Cell Reports, could lead to a reduction in the number of heart disease-related deaths that occur as a result of blood clots.
Another team of international collaborators revealed how an important protein, perforin, punches holes in cancer cells and cells hijacked by viruses to enable enzymes to enter and destroy these rogue cells. If perforin, the assassin protein, isn’t working properly, the body can’t fight infected cells. Perforin has been implicated in other autoimmune diseases and tissue rejection following bone marrow transplants.
The ten year study, the outcomes of which were published in Nature in 2015, acquired structural information from the Australian Synchrotron that detailed parts of the perforin molecule and its docking mechanism.
Also undertaken on the MX beamlines, the study was led by researchers from Monash University, the Peter McCallum Cancer Centre, Birkbeck College in London, and researchers from the Australian Synchrotron.
Synchrotron techniques are used in many important areas, including advanced materials, agriculture, biomedics, defence, environmental sustainability, food technology, forensics, oil and gas, mining and nanotechnology.
The International Year of Light 2015 as declared by the United Nations is a mix of business, education, arts and science coming together to celebrate all things ‘light’.
Light and light-based technologies are a part of most modern technology, from mobile phones to laser shows. The future of light technologies is dependent upon understanding how to apply light technologies to new solutions and creations that enhance our everyday life.