Technology

Over the past three decades, director Petra Fromme has worked diligently to discover structures of proteins, which are the molecular machines of life, leading to a number of ground-breaking discoveries. Two of these discoveries were the first high resolution images of the structures of the Photosystem I and Photosystem II proteins, which are essential to the process of photosynthesis and its ability to sustain all life by being the most prolific solar energy converter on the planet.

Upon joining ASU in 2002, Fromme teamed up with some current members of our center and a team of distinguished international collaborators to pioneer a new technique called serial femtosecond nanocrystallograpy, which has the potential to create high resolution movies of some of life’s most mysterious processes. Such information is critical in developing more effective healthcare treatments, preventing ruthless diseases, and building inexpensive and robust solar energy conversion systems to sustain humanity and our planet.

Core techniques used to interrogate molecular structures

  • Femtosecond X-ray diffraction: Ultra-short pulses of uniform, extraordinarily powerful x-rays are used to observe the movements of molecules as they work. We are actively developing this technique, which utilizes easier to make submicroscopic (0.0001−0.01 mm) 3-D crystals of the molecule and is imaged at room temperature.
     
  • Ultrafast X-ray science: Ultra-short pulses of uniform, powerful X-rays are used to unravel fundamental knowledge of the chemical and physical properties of molecules.
     
  • Nuclear magnetic resonance: High energy magnetic fields and radio waves are used to probe individual molecules in a more natural setting that can reveal a molecule's full range of motion.
     
  • Spectroscopy: Light with energies ranging from the visible to X-rays is used stimulate the desired state of a molecule or to determine information in real time on its structure, energetics, chemical and physical nature.
     
  • Computational methods: Cutting-edge computational methodologies are developed to analyze and process enormous amounts of complex data.

Global challenge focus areas

  • Solar energy and photosynthesis: The knowledge gained about photosynthesis will be used to improve photosynthesis in genetically engineered algae and to design more stable artificial systems that can inexpensively capture and store solar energy.
     
  • Health care and biomedicine: The knowledge gained about molecules related to disease and medicine will be used to develop new treatments for cancer, cystic fibrosis, infectious diseases and other dangerous pathogens.
     
  • Technology development: New technologies will be developed to discover significant insights into life’s biggest mysteries and to make products useful to our global economy.