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David Bricker
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008

New 18.8 Tesla nuclear magnetic resonance system is a powerful tool for IU's life scientists

Aug. 4, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University has acquired a 10-ton, 18.8 Tesla magnet that is part of a $2 million, 800-MHz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer system. The instrument, which fits snugly into a pit in Simon Hall's basement, will help IU's life scientists expand their study of the large molecules that are fundamental to all life -- and do so at atomic resolution.

18.1 Tesla Magnet

IU Bloomington staff scientist Doug Brown stands beside a powerful magnet that will help university researchers study large biological molecules

Print-Quality Photo

"This instrument will allow us to study the interactions of proteins with RNA and DNA that are important for the replication of human viral and bacterial pathogens," said IU Bloomington biochemist David Giedroc, who will use the new system. "We will also be able to examine various aspects of diabetes at the molecular level. Previously, we had to go to other facilities around the county to acquire these data, a costly and logistically challenging process. Now, we can do these experiments downstairs."

Giedroc says these bigger projects are much more difficult to accomplish with IU's second most powerful, 14.1 Tesla (600 MHz) NMR system. The higher magnetic field strength of the 18.8 Tesla system allows researchers to simultaneously interrogate many more individual nuclei than is possible with the lower field magnet. Since larger molecules and assemblies have more nuclei or atoms than smaller ones, the higher magnetic field strength is required.

NMR spectroscopy exploits the physical properties of the more abundant elements in biological molecules -- hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus -- to obtain structural information about those molecules in solution. The new device's "fixed" magnetic field is generated by superconducting coils that must be cooled to minus 456 degrees Fahrenheit in a bath of liquid helium. The liquid helium is insulated by a hollow cylinder of liquid nitrogen, beyond which is another cylinder whose air has been completely removed.

"This isn't just a magnet, though," according to Doug Brown, a staff scientist and NMR expert in the Department of Chemistry at IU Bloomington. "It's a very sophisticated console system that sends radiofrequency pulses in on several channels, allowing us to examine all of these nuclei simultaneously."

For example, a radiofrequency pulse of 800 megahertz excites protons, and how the protons respond to this excitation provides valuable information about the positions of each nucleus in the molecule or molecules being studied. The system does not produce radioactivity.

Brown and Giedroc expect the magnet system will be a recruiting tool for luring top faculty to IU Bloomington.

"In fact," said Giedroc, "the NMR systems here were a major reason why I recently moved to IU after nearly 20 years at another institution."

The system was installed in early July. Brown estimates he'll have things up and running by the end of September.

The instrument was manufactured by Varian Inc., a company that specializes in nuclear magnetic resonance devices. It will benefit research projects supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Funding comes from the METACyt Initiative, a partnership between Indiana University Bloomington and the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

To speak with Doug Brown or David Giedroc, please contact David Bricker, University Communications, at 812-856-9035 or