NIH Helps Patch Up Synchrotrons

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), flush with cash thanks to strong congressional support for biomedicine in recent years, is getting into the synchrotron construction business. Yesterday, NIH officials announced plans to spend $18 million this year to help pay for upgrades at California- and New York-based synchrotrons, which ricochet powerful beams of x-rays off materials to determine their atomic structure. NIH officials say they hope the money will help meet the burgeoning demand for "beamtime" among biologists looking to reveal the cell's secrets on the atomic scale.

Synchrotrons have long been a favored tool among physicists, chemists, and materials scientists, making funding for the stadium-sized machines the province of the Department of Energy (DOE). But the increasingly cash-strapped department has looked to NIH for help, as the number of biology researchers at the facilities mushroomed from about 5% in 1990 to nearly one-third in 1997. With the genome project churning out new protein sequences by the hundreds, demand is only projected to grow. "We said we have to do something about this," says Marvin Cassman, who heads NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, in Bethesda, Maryland.

A large part of that something--$14 million--will kick off a 4-year, $53 million upgrade of the central electron storage ring at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL) in Menlo Park, California. When complete in 2002, the upgraded ring, which produces the tightly focused x-ray beams prized by users, is expected to generate 10 to 100 times its current x-ray power, enabling researchers to collect data faster and study smaller protein crystals than they can now. The remaining $4 million will support new x-ray detectors and storage ring improvements at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.

"I think it's tremendously significant," says SSRL director Keith Hodgson of NIH's new direction. "Given the difficult budget climate at DOE, I think the [upgrades] would have been difficult to pull off." By backing improvements to the central storage rings, says Hodgson, NIH's money will benefit not only biologists but all users of the machines.