BioMAX is a state-of-the-art macromolecular crystallography beamline, the first beamline at MAX IV Laboratory to open its doors in 2017. At BioMAX, researchers use X-rays to characterize the structures of macromolecules such as proteins and nucleic acids (DNA and RNA). By hitting crystallised molecules with X-ray and observing the resulting diffraction pattern, scientists can mathematically reconstruct the structure of the molecule.
During 2019, the beamline staff at BioMAX successfully refined an automated setup for crystallography experiments and held their first remote experiment in autumn of the same year. In a remote setup, samples are sent to MAX IV via courier and loaded into the system by the beamline staff. Once everything is ready, scientists remotely login into BioMAX’s computers and take full control of the experiments.
In this video, Ana Gonzalez, BioMAX beamline manager, walks us through a cycle of automated, remotely controlled diffraction experiments. Samples are stored in a dewar and handled using a robot arm. The arm collects a sample from the dewar and places it on a mount at the tip of the diffractometer. The sample is then centered to perfectly align it to the X-ray beam. The alignment of the sample is performed first automatically by the system, and then manually refined by the users. Once ready, the sample is hit with X-ray beams and the diffraction pattern is collected by the large detector. This procedure lasts only a few minutes and is repeated for every sample in the set.
Initially, remote operations were planned to be just a small part of the available beamtime. However, everything changed in 2020. With the pandemic spreading and lockdowns and travel restrictions being enforced, the staff at BioMAX was forced to completely switch to remote operations. This posed serious challenges on the beamline staff, such as handling the delicate step of sample preparation themselves. However, the team successfully switched to complete remote operations and this allowed them to perform planned beamtime during spring and summer of 2020.