Your body contains a large variety of different proteins. They are big, complex molecules with diverse functions, from transporting oxygen in your blood to making your muscles contract.
Many proteins change their shape and move as they perform their task. A research team from the University of Gothenburg recently visited the beamline FemtoMAX to develop a method for studying moving proteins. They use electric fields to stimulate motion of the proteins in a sample while imaging them with the X-ray beam.
To study how proteins move, we need something to nudge them and then image them after they have changed position. Certain proteins are activated by light and in that case, the researchers can hit them with a laser pulse to provoke the motion. However, that is far from always the case. In the method being developed by the Gothenburg team, the proteins are instead subjected to an electric field that make them move.
The field is synchronized to the short, femtosecond scale (10-15 s) X-ray pulses delivered at beamline FemtoMAX. Each X-ray pulse hitting the sample is like taking a photograph using extremely short shutter speed, just like trying to get sharp images of players on a football field. The X-ray pulses at FemtoMAX are short enough to let the researchers capture the instantaneous position of the protein. By varying the time between the electric field and the X-ray pulse they can see different stages of the movement and even put the frames together as a movie of the protein motion.