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NIH awards Cornell $17.4 million for CHESS sub-facility

By Journal Staff


The funding follows a $54 million NSF award    

Richard Gillilan, MacCHESS staff scientist at Cornell University, loads a biological sample in preparation for X-rays. The National Institutes of Health has awarded the school $17.4 million for ongoing biomedical research at its MacCHESS sub-facility. MacCHESS is short for Macromolecular X-ray science at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source. (PHOTO CREDIT: CORNELL CHRONICLE WEBSITE)

ITHACA — The National Institutes of Health has awarded Cornell University $17.4 million for ongoing biomedical research at its MacCHESS sub-facility of its Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) — a national research facility, the university announced. 

MacCHESS is short for Macromolecular X-ray science at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source. Cornell, in an Aug. 15 news release, said MacCHESS “attracts hundreds of biomedical researchers each year.”

As part of its Empire State Development Division of Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR) program to promote jobs in the state, New York State will supplement the award with up to $2.5 million over the next five years. 

With this grant, the Bethesda, Maryland–based NIH joins the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a “major contributing partner” for user operations at CHESS. The NSF is funding the Center for High-Energy X-Ray Sciences at CHESS, or CHEXS, which consists of four beamlines and staff to support high-energy X-ray science user operations, X-ray technology research and development, and CHEXS leadership.

The research

Cornell says a single human cell contains thousands of proteins that perform a vast array of functions, from fighting off viruses to transcribing DNA. By understanding the structure of these proteins, researchers can interpret their functions and develop methods for turning them on and off.

To understand these biological processes, researchers have been using the high-energy X-rays at the CHESS. These intense beams of light are critical to solving the structure of these proteins. The NIH funding will “help ensure that this research continues,” the release stated.

By using the X-rays and emerging technology at MacCHESS, researchers are able to observe cellular functions and analyze molecular interactions, yielding important insights into the “most fundamental” biological processes. This research is “critical” to understanding antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the development of cancer-fighting drugs, for example.

“MacCHESS provides cutting-edge instrumentation and techniques to some of the most challenging questions confronting structural biologists,” Rick Cerione, principal investigator for MacCHESS, said in the release. “We are excited about working at the frontiers of structural biology to develop new technology that will provide long-term benefits to the biomedical research community as a whole.”

NIH funding use

The NIH funding supports two experiment stations at MacCHESS: the flexible protein crystallography beamline (FlexX); and the biological small angle X-ray solution scattering and high-pressure biology beamline (BioSAXS/HP-Bio).

Researchers at the FlexX beamline will broadly focus on macromolecular crystallography (MX) and related methods that help determine the structures of proteins, viruses and nucleic acids, offering high-resolution 3D imaging that is needed for applications such as drug design.

The BioSAXS/HP-Bio beamline will support researchers studying biomolecular structures in solution; high-pressure studies in biophysics; the structural biology of organisms living under high pressure and temperature (known as “deep life”); and food science. This beamline also will help researchers working on improved sterilization and processing methods in the food and pharmaceutical industries, Cornell said.

NSF funding to CHESS

Cornell on July 22 announced that its CHESS facility will receive $54 million in NSF funding over the next five years for a research and education sub-facility at Wilson Laboratory, the home of CHESS.

The NSF funding will be provided by its Division of Materials Research, the Directorate of Biological Sciences, and the Directorate of Engineering.

CHESS annually attracts more than 1,200 users, who conduct X-ray analysis and collect data for research in materials, biomedical and other science fields, the university said in a July 22 release.

The newly funded NSF portion of the facility will be known as the Center for High-Energy X-ray Sciences at CHESS (CHEXS @ CHESS). It will include four beamlines and staff to support high-energy X-ray science user operations, X-ray technology research and development, and CHEXS leadership, Cornell said. In addition to research, CHEXS will support education and training, particularly of researchers in biological sciences, engineering, and materials research.

“The renewal of NSF funding for CHESS will ensure America and Cornell University remain at the cutting edge of innovation in high-energy X-ray applications,” U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D–N.Y.) said in the Cornell release. “CHESS is a unique training ground for the scientific workforce we need to keep the U.S. competitive, and is part of the lifeblood of our scientific community, enabling researchers to make advancements in everything from clean energy technologies to stronger, more resilient infrastructure.”

CHESS’s most recent grant renewal from the NSF came in 2014.

The NSF is the largest source of funding for CHESS. Until this spring, CHESS had been funded exclusively by this science agency since its commissioning in 1980. That changed in April, when Cornell transitioned to “a new funding model in which multiple partners will steward facilities at CHESS,” per the release.

CHESS recently completed a $15 million upgrade, which was funded by New York State. That project improved the infrastructure of the storage ring and CHESS’s X-ray beamlines.       

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