Project makes Europe a leader in biocrystallography

A project to create a common platform throughout Europe for researchers working in the field of ‘biological crystallography’ is underway thanks to a grant of 10 million euros from the EU’s 6th Framework Programme (FP6).

The BIOXHIT (Biocrystallography on a Highly Integrated Technology Platform) project plans to integrate and further develop the best of current technologies at major European centres for research in structural biology. It will then weave them into a single standardised platform, combining a strongly focused research programme with networking, training and mobility of staff under a single and efficient management structure.

Biological crystallography aims to create precise, three-dimensional “architectural” models of biological molecules. Without such models at hand, it is almost impossible to understand biological processes - for example, the way proteins and other molecules behave in cells - or to design new drugs that will affect their functions. The most common method for obtaining such three-dimensional models is to bombard crystallised proteins with high-powered X-rays generated at huge synchrotron facilities.

“The components necessary to solve molecular structures are already in place,” says Dr. Kim Henrick from the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in Hinxton, one of the leading UK project partners. “However these tools were not originally designed for the high-throughput work required today because of the number of molecules discovered in the many genome sequencing projects. Each step of three-dimensional analysis is at a different state at each facility. This major grant will support the development and the integration of the best technology at each step, and then spread that across all of the sites.”

“One immediate effect of BIOXHIT will be a significant reduction in the time involved in obtaining each structure. Robots, for example, can perform tasks automatically, quickly, and at a consistent and high precision, replacing time-consuming manual steps. The project specifically calls for improvements in the process by which samples are handled, the equipment needed to detect X-ray patterns, and the computers and software needed to model structures. A result of this will be to attract more researchers to work on protein structures.”

Training activities are a cornerstone of the project - being funded under the thematic area ‘Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health’ of FP6 - with over 20 partners throughout Europe. A number of Training, Implementation and Dissemination centers will be created outside the participating laboratories to disseminate the know-how. A proactive training effort will take place at synchrotron facilities, and then be spread to satellite centres to disseminate biocrystallography technologies to local European communities.

“Biocrystallography is a complex area that used to be limited to a small number of specialists”, says Claire Horton, FP6UK National Contact Point for Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health. “This has now changed and we have researchers in all areas of biology who want to solve molecular structures. BIOXHIT not only make this very user friendly but it will also allow them to send samples and work remotely.”

“The current Framework Programme (FP6) runs until 2006 and organisations wanting free information on how to access some of the €19bn available should log on to http://fp6uk.ost.gov.uk or call central telephone support on 0870 600 6080.”

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