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Proteomics: PNNL Mega-Magnet to Solve Unsolvable Structures

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The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s newest toy isn’t what you’d call user-friendly. The 900 MHz NMR, one of just two in the US, has to be cooled with thousands of liters of liquid helium and nitrogen chilled to near-absolute zero before researchers can bring it to field and test it. (And you thought “batteries not included” was bad.)

The $7.2 million instrument will be used extensively for proteomics — mainly to study the structure of large molecular weight proteins and protein-protein and protein-DNA complexes that can’t be resolved by the PNNL’s 750 MHz or 800 MHz NMR spectrometers. It can get a faster look at bigger proteins, reveal the structure of proteins that don’t crystallize, and help researchers understand the effects of toxicity and stress at the cellular level.

“It is like being a kid in a candy store,” says Paul Ellis, group leader for NMR spectroscopy at the facility in Richland, Wash. Scientists, he adds, are itching to use the machine, which was brought to PNNL after a nine-year acquisition process and should be running by summer’s end.

In the meantime, some scientists are getting a crash course in assembling the 16-ton monster — they’ve been checking the 180 miles of cabling since they got the instrument in late spring.

“They’ve never shipped anything this large that far, and they wanted to make sure that everything electrically was identical. And it was,” Ellis says of the magnet, which was built by Oxford Instruments in the UK. Varian of California manufactured the NMR system.

Time on the instrument will be available for accepted research projects, and proposals are called for twice a year. The next deadline is January 15. Ellis says the 900 should help alleviate the two- to three-fold number of applications per machine for time that the facility currently has for its 750 and 800.

— Dana Frisch