Life on Earth manages to exist in the Mariana Trench and deep below the ocean floor, where extreme conditions create large effects on the behavior of biological molecules.
At the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), a facility dedicated to high-pressure biological X-ray scattering (HP-Bio) is available for use to explore those deep ocean molecules. Richard Gillilan, a staff scientist at CHESS, described the main capabilities of BioSAXS and called for scientific use of the facility at the 70th Annual Meeting of the American Crystallographic Association, which was held virtually Aug. 2-7.
The technology stemmed from the worldwide scientific interest generated by the success of the Deep Carbon Observatory. Thanks to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the state of New York, CHESS created a user facility dedicated to structural biology, where scientists can conduct studies under extreme pressure, temperature, pH, salt and anoxic conditions.
“There’s been a lack of places for people to go to do high-pressure biophysical measurements, so we’re addressing that need,” Gillilan said. “We’ve joined forces with the new NSF Research Coordination Network on Extreme Biophysics to help make that happen.”
Organisms can live in rock pores deep underground and far below the ocean floor. Understanding the impacts of these conditions may be an important key to uncovering life elsewhere in the universe and to making more sense of its origins here at home.
“How any organisms that we know can function at these extreme conditions is really unknown,” said Gillilan. “Biochemistry and molecular biology could be completely different down there.”
Gillilan discussed the design and performance of two of the main technologies at HP-Bio, one of which can take measurements reaching nearly 7,000 times atmospheric pressure.
“If there’s one thing I want everybody to remember, it’s this one statement,” he said. “Anything a biomolecule does changes its volume.”
The relationship between pressure and volume -- which affects molecular properties -- is the reason why high-pressure studies are so important.
High-pressure structural biology is still a largely unexplored field. Gillilan emphasizes CHESS is a unique new tool that can help improve the understanding of biophysical processes.
A version of this article originally appeared on Newswise