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European researchers launch 10 million Euro collaborative technology project


European researchers launch 10 million Euro collaborative technology project: EMBL-Hamburg coordinates a four-year integrated research project within the 6th Framework Programme of the European Commission:

The European Commission has given Europe a huge boost in the field of Structural Genomics, awarding the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and its partners 10 Million Euro for an integrated project called “BIOXHIT.” The project aims to create a common platform throughout Europe for researchers working in the field of “biological crystallography.”

BIOXHIT stands for “Biocrystallography on a Highly Integrated Technology Platform” for European Structural Genomics. The goal is to take the best of current technologies at major European centres for research in structural biology, develop them further and weave them into a single platform that integrates and standardises the best of current technology, and spread it throughout Europe.

EMBL-Hamburg will coordinate the integrated project, which unites over twenty partners from nine European countries, including all European synchrotrons. BIOXHIT combines 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 close to impossible to understand biological processes, for instance 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.

“We already have all the single components necessary to solve molecular structures,” says Victor Lamzin, grant coordinator at EMBL-Hamburg. “We have synchrotrons, we can grow protein crystals, we have the software components and we can obtain structures. But the tools we use were not originally designed for high-throughput work. This is what is needed now because of the tens of thousands of new molecules we have discovered in the many genome sequencing projects. Each step of three-dimensional analysis is at a different state at each facility. With this major grant, the Commission strives to support the development and the integration of the best technology at each step, and then spread that across all of the sites.”

Several new European synchrotrons, now on the drawing board or under construction, are scheduled to go on line by 2006 or 2007. BIOXHIT calls for them to begin using the platform from their first day of operations.

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.

“Biocrystallography used to be a field for specialists,” Lamzin says, “but today, researchers from all walks of biology want to solve molecular structures at the synchrotrons. The new platform will make this process very user-friendly; it will even allow them to send us their samples and work remotely, from their own institutions.”

“This grant from the EC will definitely make Europe a substantial player in this area,” Lamzin notes. “As well as uniting technologies, BIOXHIT will unite other European and national activities into one strong European alliance, giving us the strength to be a major competitor in Structural Genomics on a global scale. Similar initiatives are already underway in the US and Japan, our two main competitors in this area.”

Training activities are a cornerstone of the project. A number of Training, Implementation and Dissemination centres 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.

Trista Dawson | EMBL
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