SAN FRANCISCO, April 30 - What's 21 feet high, weighs 16 tons, has stored energy equivalent to a 30-ton truck barreling at 100 mph, and could help you unlock the secrets of proteins?
If you're the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory you would have said it's your new 900 MHz NMR spectrometer.
The machine, which the lab says is the largest commercially available one of its kind, was recently installed at PNNL's Richland, Wash., facility and should be operational by the end of the summer, according to Paul Ellis, chief scientist responsible for the magnetic resonance group at the lab. PNNL researchers will take up half the NMR's time and academic researchers will have access to the remainder for free. These requests will be doled out on a peer-reviewed basis.
"My guess is there will be three times more requests for time than is available," said Ellis.
Calls for proposals are made twice a year, and the next round is due by July 16.
If researchers openly publish data gathered with the help of the NMR the only cost to use the machine is "getting to our front door," Ellis said. It might even be cheaper than that: Samples could also be investigated remotely via computer.
If the research is proprietary or if there is to be a significant delay in publishing results, scientists will have to pony up for machine time. At several hundred dollars per hour on experiments that can last two weeks around the clock, this could run up a significant tab, Ellis pointed out.
What's the lure of this huge magnet?
"Not all proteins crystallize," explained Michael Kennedy, a PNNL staff scientist and primary investigator in the macromolecular structure and dynamics lab. "This is the only alternative method to get atomic resolution."
It is especially useful for delineating the structure of large and unstable proteins, said Kennedy. Additionally, the sample is measured in a solution state that yields measurements not obtainable via crystals, he said.
And while PNNL already has an 800 MHz, a 750 MHz, and pair of 600 MHz NMR spectrometers, the 900 MHz unit significantly increases resolution and sensitivity, making it possible to "look at bigger proteins faster," Kennedy said.
The PNNL, meanwhile, is using the NMR to identify protein structure involved in recognizing DNA damage and initiating repair.