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Excitement at P11: the virus under X-ray vision

Press and Public Relations

Excitement at P11: the virus under X-ray vision

Final preparations in the experiment hutch: scientist Julia Lieske at the liquid nitrogen tank with samples for the coronavirus measurements.

“Interlock search – please leave the area.” The automated announcement marks the end of preparations for the measurement. A brief moment of tension, a routine search. Scientist Julia Lieske, who had brought newly prepared samples, leaves the experiment hut after a final check. We are at beamline P11 in the experimental hall of PETRA III. This is where research into the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 at DESY takes place. Every day 460 samples are measured at P11 in the X-ray beam. So far, the research team has identified 18 active substances that bind to the protein crystals of the coronavirus in the experiment. A first encouraging step.

Fully automatic: the robot arm grabs a sample here in the tank.

Flashing lights. “Warning, beam engaged.” In the experiment hutch, the pre-cooled orange robot arm automatically grabs the sample in the tank with the liquid nitrogen and places it on the X-ray diffractometer. Flashing lights.

Monitoring, checking, controlling: Next door, DESY researcher Sebastian Günther stares at the control monitors, precisely adjusts the sample in the beam, checks its quality. At PETRA III, the structure of the samples to be examined can be determined with an accuracy of a ten-millionth of a millimetre. With this high resolution, possible active substances that bind to the protein can be identified. A single measurement takes three minutes.

This is a snapshot, a brief insight into DESY's COVID-19 research. Without much excitement, without noise, but nevertheless extremely exciting and very intense. “The people here are super motivated, it really brings us together,” says physicist Alke Meents, who coordinates the project. “This is of course also due to the fact that it's about the coronavirus. We have a very special ambition to find potential drug candidates as quickly as possible.” He also had insight of a different kind: “It's amazing how fast everything develops in this project – and how well and unbureaucratically the cooperation works.”

Over the next few weeks, altogether at least three proteins are planned to be crystallised, each cumulatively with around 5700 different known active ingredients from a substance library at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology. “Ideally, we will therefore examine 17,100 different crystals at the P11 measuring station,” project manager Meents reckons. “But we won’t be able to do it with the intensity of the early days. That can't be sustained over such a long period of time.”

DESY researcher Sebastian Günther monitors the measurements in the control room.

These are extreme times. DESY researcher Oleksander Yefanov confirms: “We worked practically 24/7, taking data with eight colleagues in shifts”. And biochemist Patrick Reinke adds: “It is particularly time-consuming for us to prepare the protein crystals by hand in the laboratory for examination with X-ray radiation.”

In two to three months, the project, which involves around 80 researchers, should be completed for the time being. “It's amazing how much can be achieved when people are so extremely motivated,” says Alke Meents. “What we're doing now, in a few weeks, is usually a project that lasts at least a year.” Motivational tension in the time of corona: “We would be disappointed if others found the drug before us.”

The narrow corridor in front of P11 is now deserted. The measurement is fully automatic. The sign at the control hut is clear – but not unfunny: “Remote (!!!) Measurement. Don't touch if you are not among the chosen ones :)”


Researchers from Universität Hamburg, the University of Lübeck, the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology, the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Centre Berlin and DESY are involved in the work.