Argonne breaks ground on $34.5M research facility

By Angela HardinAugust 30, 2011

Illinois to provide funding for design, construction

ARGONNE, Ill. —The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory broke ground today on a $34.5 million Advanced Protein Crystallization Facility (APCF) that will enable scientists from Illinois and around the world to produce, purify and characterize a wide range of proteins more rapidly and have a critical role in the development of important medical therapeutics.

The State of Illinois will provide funding for the design and construction of the APCF, which is slated to open in 2014. This is the third major investment by the state in Argonne. Illinois also provided funds to construct the Argonne Guest House, a lodging place for visiting scientists, and the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), which abuts Argonne's Advanced Photon Source (APS). Like the CNM, the APCF will also be located next to the APS.

"Argonne National Laboratory plays a key role in Illinois' innovation ecosystem, bringing together leading researchers from across the state and around the world and providing them with exceptional scientific facilities that foster productive collaborations," said Governor Quinn. "The State of Illinois' investment in Argonne's new Advanced Protein Crystallization Facility will help researchers to better understand the building blocks of life itself—and to apply that knowledge in new ways, discovering powerful new medicines to fight disease and preserve health. The investment also will create hundreds of new jobs in our state, now and for decades to come."

The 50,000 square-foot state-of-the-art structural genomics facility will complement DOE's Structural Biology Center (SBC), also located at the APS. The SBC is a scientific user facility that hosts hundreds of researchers for X-ray protein crystallography studies. The APCF will provide those visiting researchers with modern laboratory space for sample preparation prior to using the SBC beamlines to collect data.

"The Advanced Protein Crystallization Facility will be a premier facility for advanced research in the structure and function of proteins, adding yet another important tool to Argonne’s exceptional suite of scientific facilities,” said Eric D. Isaacs, Director of Argonne National Laboratory. “When the doors of this building open, it will create extraordinary new opportunities for biological, pharmaceutical and biochemical research, spurring discovery, innovation and job creation at Argonne and throughout Illinois.”

The APCF will serve the growing production needs of the Midwest Center for Structural Genomics (MCSG), currently located within Argonne's Biosciences Building. The MCSG is one of four Protein Structure Initiative Centers funded by the National Institutes of General Medical Science and will be the cornerstone of the initial research at the APCF.

By making possible large-scale research in molecular biology, biochemistry and protein engineering, the facility will play a critical role in helping researchers from academia and industry develop biomedical products that can be made and marketed by existing and entrepreneurial firms.

"The APCF will accelerate the research process and allow us to describe proteins more quickly," said Carol Giometti, director of the Biosciences Division, which operates the SBC. While protein crystallography experiments will continue to be performed at the SBC, scientists at the APCF will use robotics to accelerate the production, purification and crystallization of the proteins to be analyzed.

Crystallizing proteins with contemporary technology is a time-consuming and often frustrating process, said SBC and MCSG Director Andrzej Joachimiak. For every 100 attempts, only one or two usable crystals typically form. "It's a very low-probability event," he said. "We've designed the APCF to shorten the time it takes from producing a protein to making viable crystals from it."

The APCF will provide researchers with the ability to manufacture protein crystals far more quickly and more accurately than ever before, Joachimiak said.

"The biggest bottleneck in protein crystallography arises not when we're taking the crystallization data, but in the earliest steps of protein crystallization," he said. "When the APCF opens, it could increase our productivity by a factor of five compared to where we are right now."

Protein crystallography is one of the most important tools for drug and vaccine developers, who use the technology to discover the molecular mechanisms of disease in order to design better cures.

"If you know the 3-D structure of a given protein," Giometti said, "you can work more efficiently to come up with drugs that will interact with that protein. If that protein is involved in a disease, you can accelerate the development of a drug to fight it by knowing where the sites on the protein are for that drug to attach to and interfere with it. You could use computational methods to predict what's going to happen, but the bottom line is that you're going to need to prove it experimentally, and that's what the APCF will permit us to do."

Besides biomedical innovations, knowledge gained through the crystallization of proteins found in natural environments will likely lead to new environmental management strategies that will benefit fields such as energy production, agriculture and environmental remediation.

"The APCF will directly and indirectly enhance the efforts of many researchers,” said Wayne Anderson, Professor at Northwestern University and Director of the Center for Structural Genomics of Infectious Diseases. “Not only will our projects benefit through use of the advanced technology at the APCF but also collaborations between investigators at a number of Illinois institutions, will move more quickly, providing experimental results that will expand research programs and enhance drug discovery efforts."

Joachimiak explained that the new possibility for mass manufacture of protein crystals comes as a consequence of two new technologies that the APCF will bring to Argonne: microfluidics and high-throughput robotics. Microfluidics involves the use of extraordinarily small droplets of protein solution—roughly 10 to 20 nanoliters—which allows scientists to probe "literally thousands of different conditions to see which ones will best promote crystal growth."

High-throughput robotics relies on the automation of the repetitive yet intricate tasks that slow down crystallography research. The SBC has already installed a crystal mounting robot at the APS, and Joachimiak hopes to expand its use once the APCF opens. Additionally, the introduction of new software programs that can automatically calculate and analyze protein structures will make the process even more efficient, he said.

Economic Impact

Construction of the APCF is expected to create 825 new Illinois job and $25 million in personal income. After opening, the facility is expected to draw another $110 million for research activities over a five-year period, create 550 new jobs and add $52 million to the Illinois economy annually.

The APCF will also expand research opportunities at MCSG and other research organizations like the University of Illinois, which could result in an expected $400 million to $600 million in federal research funding over 10 years, create about 1,000 to 1,500 news job and add upwards of $150 million a year to the Illinois economy.