BioMAX switches to remote operations in times of COVID-19

BioMAX switches to remote operations in times of COVID-19

International travel restrictions as well as national travel recommendations due to COVID-19 have imposed a challenge on scientists in need of beamtime. BioMAX is therefore now running remote sessions with users.

Protein crystals sample embedded in a viscous matrix used during the remote experiments at BioMAX.

At MAX IV Laboratory, our priorities during this COVID-19 pandemic are to keep our staff, users and contractors safe and contribute to societal solidarity by slowing down the spreading, while at the same time secure user operation as much as reasonably possible. In this framework, we are glad to share that the macromolecular crystallography beamline BioMAX has switched to remote operations to enable users to perform their experiments without having to travel to our facility.

BioMAX is not new to running remote operations. The beamline team performed their first remote experiment already in autumn 2019 and has had other sessions since. Now, with the current global pandemic restrictions, the BioMAX team is ready to step up the game and switch to remote operations entirely, at least for the foreseeable future. A couple of weeks ago, BioMAX held a remote session with a team of researchers from the University of Gothenburg, as part of a collaboration to develop serial synchrotron crystallography at MAX IV.

“These experiments were not planned to happen in this way”, explains Monika Bjelčić, PhD student at BioMAX. “After a late-night meeting on Monday, we decided to do fix-target serial crystallography, an established procedure at BioMAX, collecting data at room-temperature as initially planned.  The researchers sent their samples from Gothenburg via courier; on Wednesday, we established remote access via VPN to the BioMAX control room and had a zoom call throughout the session so that the researchers could follow every step remotely.” After a few initial technical problems, the team carried out the experiments successfully, collecting approximately 3 hours of data.

The researchers from Gothenburg sought to obtain insights on different membrane proteins using well-diffracting microcrystals. “The aim of my project is to observe the structure of Sensory rhodopsin II (SRII) – a membrane protein of archaea – and understand how the signal propagates from SRII to its complexed transducer protein”, explains Giorgia Ortolani, PhD student at the University of Gothenburg. “In this specific data collection, we wanted to observe the protein’s structure in the non-active state.”

“Cytochrome C Oxidase performs one of the most crucial reactions for life on Earth: it utilizes the oxygen we breathe to produce energy in the form of ATP”, says Doris Zoric, also a PhD student at the University of Gothenburg. “Although this protein superfamily is well known, there is no detailed structural understanding of how proton translocation takes place. Through these experiments, we aim at tracking structural changes occurring during oxygen reduction and proton translocation in real-time.”

Monika in BioMAX control room guiding the experiments while Giorgia and Doris are connected remotely from Gothenburg.

When asked about her experience with the remote operations, Giorgia said: “The session went very well. I am very satisfied because both Monika Bjelčić and Oskar Aurelius – the beamline scientists – put a lot of effort into it. I had the feeling they cared about the outcome as much as I did. We were very like-minded, so for me, it was like being there. I haven’t felt any difference, and I would definitely consider doing more remote experiments at MAX IV in case we have the same experimental strategy and dedication from the beamline staff.”

“The encouragement and helpful instructions given by the MAX IV staff made this session a very pleasant experience”, added Doris. “Monika took in a very a critical responsibility – sample preparation, which is a crucial step that must be performed on-site. I successfully operated my experiment remotely and I am very happy with the flow and the results. When working off-site, it is crucial to be able to trust people on the other side of the screen, and I have nothing but nice words for the BioMAX team.”

Hearing such responses from users is encouraging, and it gives our staff the confidence that the effort they put in keeping the operations going is paying off. “For BioMAX, it’s not that common to have remote users. Usually, we would have perhaps two sessions per month, and they would be with experienced users doing standard data collection. Nobody thought of doing room-temperature serial crystallography on remote like we did this time”, says Monika.

Despite the unexpected changes forced on them, the BioMAX staff has found the right recipe to make these remote operations work. “Fortunately, switching to remote operations didn’t cause us to cancel scheduled beamtimes. Since mid-March, we are doing exclusively remote data collection, with only one group from Lund University coming on-site, and we will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.” The team from Gothenburg will also come back (figuratively speaking) for more serial crystallography remote data collection in May. “Thanks to this opportunity, we were able to make progress when it seemed impossible”, concluded Doris. “Due to the current circumstances, I believe remote experiments are simply the next logical step.”


Header image: Doris Zoric, PhD student at University of Gothenburg, remotely connected with VPN to MAX IV and running data collections.

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