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News Release 13-186

NSF-funded center will use X-ray lasers to transform the field of structural biology and pharmaceutical development

Buffalo center brings world-class NSF research center to mid-Atlantic

Illustration from computer simulation predicting how 2 regions of a eukaryotic enzyme bind to tRNA.

This computer simulation predicts how two regions of a eukaryotic enzyme bind to tRNA.

November 6, 2013

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded $25 million to the University at Buffalo (UB), to fund a new Science and Technology Center (STC), the Center for Biology with X-ray Laser, "BioXFEL."

UB represents a national consortium of eight partner research universities and institutes and will host the center--NSF's only active STC in the mid-Atlantic region.

"This center is expected to lead to very exciting science and technology developments, with likely transformative impact on the characterization of biological structures," said Dragana Brzakovic, senior staff associate in NSF's Office of International and Integrative Activities.

BioXFEL will focus on developing new X-ray bioimaging techniques--including an advanced form of X-ray crystallography called serial femtosecond crystallography--to analyze a vast array of new molecular targets for drug discovery.

Scientists at BioXFEL will use an extremely powerful new kind of X-ray beam called an X-ray, free-electron laser (XFEL) that was developed at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University. The use of the XFEL to analyze protein crystals was chosen by the journal Science as one of the top 10 science breakthroughs of 2012.

"At the heart of this center is XFEL technology that produces radiation with laser-like properties at X-ray wavelengths," said NSF Chemistry of Life Processes Program Manager David Rockcliffe. "With this, the center will provide the biology research community with tools to study an enormous number of biological systems that are currently inaccessible by current X-ray methods. Once the center develops the measurement tools to fully utilize the XFEL source, the scientific payoffs are expected to be extraordinary."

This technique has the potential to spur innovation in the pharmaceutical field. It will provide scientists with new insights into how biological molecules function, what might be happening when disease occurs and what compounds might be designed as drugs to modify this activity. While current techniques in crystallography provide almost 90 percent of what scientists know about biomolecular structure, fewer than 20 percent of purified proteins form the crystals necessary for this technique. With the new bio-imaging technique developed with XFEL, researchers are expected to be able to analyze crystals 1,000 times smaller than the ones now studied.

Eaton E. Lattman, professor in the UB Department of Structural Biology in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and chief executive officer of the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (HWI), will be director of the BioXFEL center.

The UB STC will draw on expertise of more than two dozen world class researchers by partnering with Arizona State University; Cornell University; Stanford University; the University of California (UC), San Francisco and UC Davis; the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Rice University and HWI, part of the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus.

HWI expertise will play a central role in the new center, particularly its National Institutes of Health-funded high-throughput screening laboratory, which has been growing crystals of proteins for hundreds of client labs throughout the U.S. for a decade.

For more information on this Buffalo STC for biology, see its announcement, Next-generation crystallography and the BioXFEL website.

This new STC is funded as part of NSF's Science and Technology Center program, which supports integrative partnerships that require large-scale, long-term investments to pursue world class research and education. Existing STCs study a wide range of complex scientific topics, such as atmospheric modeling, life beneath the sea floor, energy-efficient electronics, water purification techniques and cybersecurity.

The University at Buffalo's proposal was one of three selected this year through a merit-based competition. Others funded this year include the Center for Integrated Quantum Materials at Harvard and the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Media Contacts
Lisa-Joy Zgorski, NSF, (703) 292-8311,
Ellen Goldbaum, University of Buffalo, (716) 645-4605,

Program Contacts
Charles Bouldin, NSF, (703) 292-4920,
Dragana Brzakovic, NSF, (703) 292-8040,
Robert D. Fleischmann, NSF, (703) 292-7191,
David Alexander Rockcliffe, NSF, (703) 292-7123,

Principal Investigators
Eaton Lattman, University of Buffalo, SUNY, 716-898-8612,

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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