by: Robert Tindol

Scientists, philanthropists, and other dignitaries on March 23 officially dedicated the new Molecular Observatory for Structural Molecular Biology at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL), an exceptional new tool in the study of living systems. The observatory is a collaboration between the California Institute of Technology and Stanford, with funding by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

According to Douglas Rees, the Dickinson professor of chemistry at Caltech and a principal investigator on the project, the molecular observatory will make it possible to see biological molecules that are responsible for cellular functions, thereby allowing a new level of detail in the "atomic-scale blueprints" of living matter. The facility will thereby provide a key resource in the field of structural biology, which aims at better understanding larger functions of living things by closely investigating their molecular components.

At the heart of the molecular laboratory is the SSRL's synchrotron electron accelerator, which allows powerful X rays to be used for ultrabright beams that can be focused with pin-like precision on extremely small samples. The result is a pattern from the molecules of the sample-a protein, for example-that can be more readily interpreted to yield the atomic structure than with more conventional sources.

Among the goals of the researchers is to obtain images of macromolecules such as proteins, nucleic acids, and complexes of these macromolecules for new insights into how chemistry is regulated within living cells.

The new observatory will also provide remote control to allow researchers from all over the world to conduct their experiments without having to travel to the lab site. 

Development and installation of the observatory was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through an agreement between Caltech, Stanford, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and SSRL. SLAC and SSRL are operated by Stanford and funded in part by the Department of Energy's Office of Science.

About Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, established in 2000, seeks to advance environmental conservation and cutting-edge scientific research around the world and improve the quality of life in the San Francisco Bay Area. The foundation has committed $300 million in potential grants over 10 years to the California Institute of Technology to support the institution in maintaining its position at the forefront of higher science and technology education and research.

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