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From the Director: Biology with Free Electron Lasers

(Photo - Persis Drell)
(Photo by Linda Cicero.)

This week Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory hosted a workshop that brought together biologists, scientists and users from the Linac Coherent Light Source and others to discuss the opportunities to do biology at free electron lasers. Against the backdrop of the outstanding early performance of LCLS and the beautiful data that was taken last year, a lively series of talks focused on the emerging opportunities and challenges for experiments in biology offered by X-ray free electron lasers.

Early results with nanocrystals in the LCLS beam already point to advances that will be made in determining structures of biologically interesting molecules that are hard to crystallize. A lot of the focus of the workshop was on whether X-ray FEL's could be used to image large, complex objects such as entire cells, or, in the other extreme, whether one could ultimately determine structures of single molecules.

The excitement in the room was palpable. There is no question that the challenges of actually doing biology with LCLS are substantial. The challenges of system complexity and heterogeneity of samples, even at the molecular level, were discussed in almost every talk. But if the challenges are substantial the opportunities are transformational. More than once a discussion of the difficulties to be overcome would be interrupted by a statement such as "But don't lose sight of the unique opportunity that is offered…"

Most exciting for me, in the day and a half I was at the workshop, was to be able to witness the opening of a new scientific frontier. Some of the science discussed will be done at LCLS and some will have to wait for other facilities. But I left the workshop confident that X-ray FELs will facilitate major advances in biology in the decade to come. It was great fun to witness the process as the community rolled up its sleeves and started to get down to work to make these advances happen.

—Persis Drell
SLAC Today, January 21, 2011