Storage vendors slow pace of medical research

Scientists working on topics like protein crystallography are being hampered by the speed of storage, it has emerged.

At last night’ Scibar gig at the Port Mahon pub in St Clemens, Oxford, Liverpudlian Dr Robin Owen dilated at length on the Diamond Light Source – a synchroton about the size of Wembley Stadium. It emerged that any one of the many beam lines at the facility generated 600GB per burst and although the facility has petabytes of storage, a limiting factor is the write speed.

Dr Owen specialises in the field of protein crystallography. He explained that proteins are an essential part of any organism and cells. The human body, he claimed, has 100s of trillions of cells. Inside each human red bloodcell are 270 million protein molecules, he said. Engagingly he embarked on an Intel like analogy – the thickness of a beermat amounts to 300 red blood cells stacked on top of each other.

The Diamond beam line he described produces a lattice of protein crystals.

Essentially, the facility works a bit like a cathode ray tube (CRT) – if anyone out there remembers them. The particle accelerator produces electrons that do a round of Wembley Stadium – bouncing around a 20 sided polygon, guided by a series of magnets. “The spacing of the magnets is very carefully determined,” he said.

The x-rays travel round the ring and head off into the beam lines, which are a bit like the spokes of a wheel. Right now there are 15 beam lines at the synchroton, but that’s being expanded to 30 soon, he said.

As well as protein crystallography, other researchers are working there on topics like hydrogen storage. According to Owen, pharmas can rent a bit of space from time to time, but essentially the Wembley Stadium of particles is for pure research.

While the Diamond facility uses CCDs, a bit like a digicam, that isn’t quite fast enough and an array of diodes for detection is being implemented, Owen said.

Diamond is also experimenting with free electron lasers (FELs), he said, and the first results are impressive. Owen thinks it would be nice if the facility got to the stage where it could make movies of proteins because even in the crystalline stage proteins are always moving.