Applied Structural Discovery


Creating a sustainable future by unraveling life's fundamental building blocks


Develop new revolutionary techniques that reveal the structure and dynamics of biomolecules towards new visionary discoveries in medicine and energy conversion

Discovering Structural Knowledge to Improve Society

The intricate orchestration of biological activity on our planet is enabled by nature’s remarkable nanotechnology, composed of tiny molecular machines called proteins.  Proteins carry out all of the essential tasks critical for survival, including normal metabolism and tissue repair, the response of our immune system to pathogens, and in plants and algae, the ability to capture and use energy from sunlight to produce the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat.  Understanding how proteins perform their remarkable tasks requires a multi-faceted understanding of their structure, dynamics, and the physical and chemical processes that occur at the molecular and atomic scale.  The emergence of new generations of state-of-the-art technologies that probe these processes hold promise that science and technology will emerge with a revolutionary understanding that enables building manmade technologies that mimic and improve on nature in order to solve pressing global challenges in healthcare and energy conversion. 

Directed by Petra Fromme, the Center for Applied Structural Discovery (CASD) at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute unites a team of complementary research professionals from a wide range of disciplines, including biology, chemistry, physics and engineering, to develop and apply groundbreaking technologies and methodologies to accelerate the rate at which we discover the structure and associated function of biomolecules. Breakthrough knowledge will accelerate progress on the path to technical innovations that improve human health and provide plentiful clean energy and food for future generations.

The establishment of this center reflects ASU’s evolution as a leading research university, and it underscores our commitment to innovation in the pursuit of solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.  
– ASU President Michael Crow

An X-ray Revolution

Since their discovery in 1895, X-rays have grown to be an important part of our society.  X-rays are generated by accelerating subatomic particles called electrons.  Early instruments produced X-rays with enough energy so we could take pictures of our skeletons, transforming medicine.  In the 1960s and 1970s, systems were built to accelerate electrons in large rings (up to 2 km in diameter) called synchrotrons to generate powerful and uniform X-rays that could take snapshots of molecules, when the molecules are arranged in large crystals like salt.  In 2009, a new type of instrument was built, called an X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL), which produces extraordinarily powerful X-rays to take snapshots of molecules as they move, with the potential to make molecular movies and discover how they work.  Unfortunately, due to their immense size (over 1 kilometer long), XFELs cost over $1 billion to build, so only two exist currently in the world, leading to an extreme bottleneck for cutting-edge research.  CASD members are working with distinguished international collaborators to design and build a new type of compact XFEL that could fit on a bench top and would cost less than $25 million to build.  Compact XFELs could revolutionize the field by making the technology available to many more scientists around the world and accelerate the rate at which we discover knowledge for helping solve critical global challenges.


Devastating diseases directly or indirectly affect everyone on the planet and the root causes of these diseases often lie in how proteins work or fail to work.  Proteins are also used by viruses to attach to and invade our cells.  Designing drugs to affect the proteins involved in disease without knowledge of the structure of those proteins is like a locksmith trying to design a key without any knowledge of the size and shape of the key hole.  Detailed knowledge about how drugs interact with their intended protein targets could significantly accelerate the discovery and development of effective therapies.  CASD, with distinguished international partners, is developing revolutionary technologies for taking snapshots of protein movements together with a series of drugs to understand how they interact.  This knowledge will enable us to convert these snapshots into “molecular movies” of how the proteins move and drugs bind and how a virus invades our cells, which will lead to developing more effective and lower cost treatments.


The ancient Earth was an eerie place without oxygen and huge amounts of carbon dioxide creating an atmosphere that resembled that of Mars.  Two-and-a-half billion years ago, photosynthesis completely transformed our planet by producing the oxygen we breathe and capturing solar energy and carbon dioxide to produce biomass, which was eventually converted over millions of years into energy-dense fossil fuels that currently powers our world.  Today we are burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide faster than photosynthesis can keep up, leading to climate change.  CASD strives to unlock the secrets of photosynthesis in order to develop more efficient energy conversion systems that will meet and exceed our world’s energy demands.