UK project to yield world's most sensitive time-resolved vibrational spectrometer

February 11, 2008, Oxfordshire, UK--A new laser under development at the Science and Technology Facilities Council's (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory will enable scientists to monitor biological processes at a millionth of a millionth of a second.

The ULTRA laser will be the world's most sensitive time-resolved vibrational spectrometer. Vibrational spectroscopy analyses the frequency of vibrations in the bonds between the atoms that make up molecules. Bonds between different types of atoms have their own frequencies and scientists can build up a spectrum of these vibrations, giving the molecule its own "fingerprint."

"The ULTRA laser is designed to study molecular changes at the thousand million millionth of a second (femtosecond) to microsecond timescales," says Prof. Tony Parker, Head of the Lasers for Science Facility. "What makes it special is that its light will focus on biological and medically important research with high multidisciplinary science content. ULTRA will help biologists to understand what makes DNA so chemically stable that it is entrusted by nature to hold the key to our genetic code, and such mysteries as how proteins change their shape to control life sustaining processes or lead to diseases such as BSE. Ultrafast timescales may seem rather abstract when considering the human timescale of events in seconds, minutes and days but the 'biological chemistry' to be investigated is very real to molecules keeping us alive and healthy."

Based around a custom-built laser system provided by Thales (France) according to STFC specifications, the ULTRA laser tunes across the ultraviolet to the mid infrared. This wide tuning range at 10,000 pulses per second, coupled to the development of new sensitive detectors by STFC's Technology Department, is key to ULTRA's improved sensitivity. Together they make it a unique machine capable of more than an order magnitude greater performance on existing 'university' scale machines. The facility will also enable more efficient use of precious biological samples, for example DNA, as smaller amounts of material are required compared to conventional equipment. Fresh, rather than frozen, samples are also used, further enhancing ULTRA's research capabilities. Through ULTRA, biologists will be able to take 'molecular fingerprints' and 'see' a wide range of biological processes not observable by their existing counterparts.

Currently under development at the Lasers for Science Facility at RAL, through funding from the STFC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, ULTRA has produced its first usable laser output, a major milestone in the project. ULTRA is taking techniques widely used in the physical sciences, and adapting them to the needs of the bioscience research community. Its applications are wide-reaching: examining DNA damage (the primary steps in mutation), protein function and researching disease recognition are just a few research areas that will benefit from this advanced facility. Once ULTRA's unique scientific benefits are delivered, its technology will be spunout to more general industrial and medical applications.

Due to become operational in Fall 2008, ULTRA is slated to become a key tool for biologists worldwide.

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