Berkeley Lab Advanced Light Source X-ray facility to study COVID-19

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With the current climate created by the coronavirus pandemic, many researchers are refocusing their research, including those at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is recalling its Advanced Light Source, or ALS, X-ray facility, to exclusively study COVID-19.

According to Berkeley Lab Director Michael Witherell in a press release, this decision was made to make an impact in COVID-19 research while remaining within the constraints of the site’s status. The experiments being conducted currently involve three ALS beamlines. Beamlines examine the 3D structure of samples such as proteins and viruses by beaming X-rays at their crystallized forms.

“Structural studies can lead to drugs that target and attack the virus while leaving other vital systems intact, for example, or that can otherwise improve the body’s defenses against the virus,” said a Berkeley Lab spokesperson in an email.

The staff currently working on site returned March 31.

In accordance with California’s shelter-in-place policies and to facilitate social distancing, only a limited number of ALS’ 200-person staff are working on site. According to the Berkeley Lab spokesperson, the staff members remaining on site have undergone additional training and all work areas are sanitized between on-site shifts.

“Only one beamline scientist per experimental station, one accelerator operator, and one electronics maintenance technician are present,” the spokesperson said in the email. “The LBNL operations team has essential personnel on site to ensure safe operations of the facilities and site, overall.”

Additionally, users are not allowed on site and are instead shipping in samples to be analyzed by the on-site staff. These samples are crystallized virus proteins that cannot infect anyone.

These users consist of groups from various international universities as well as those in industry, according to the Berkeley Lab press release.

“About half the COVID-19 users so far are pharmaceutical companies with connections to the Bay Area, working on therapies or vaccines,” the spokesperson said in the email. “Several of the existing user groups at the ALS have been working on characterizing coronaviruses and therapeutics for years and reached out to the ALS to use the facility to study COVID-19-related samples.”

The press release also stated that the research conducted by these groups ranges from how to neutralize spiky proteins on the surface of the cell to characterizing structures involved in replicating the virus, to how infection by the virus impacts the structure of infected cells.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is currently funding ALS operations, while the beamlines receive funding from the National Institutes of Health as well as various other sponsors, both academic and industry.

“Due to shelter-in-place orders and other evolving factors around the Lab’s operational state, we do not currently have an estimate for how long the ALS will only conduct research related to COVID-19,” the spokesperson said in the email.

Megha Krishnan is a research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_meghakrishnan_.