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Biology

The ILL has firmly established itself as a pioneer in neutron science and technology. Neutron beams are used to carry out frontier research in diverse fields.

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Science at ILL (old)

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Biology

One of the more exciting and expanding areas of application of neutrons is in the life sciences. Mapping the human genome has unleashed vast programmes of work that promise to uncover how proteins, DNA and other large complex molecules control living processes.

Neutrons offer an excellent probe of these structures in their natural aqueous environment. How can neutrons tell us anything about structure and biology?

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Areas of application

Bone, teeth and muscle
Carbohydrates such as cellulose
Cell membranes
Digestive processes
Drug delivery and action
Enzymatic mechanisms at the molecular level
Gene therapy


From neutrons to neurons

A partnership between the ILL and the ESRF has been pursuing research on the neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM). The NCAM is responsible for the binding or repulsion behaviour of nerve cells at the synapse.

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Modelling milk

Milk is an amazing liquid: as well as proteins, fats, sugars and other nutrients needed to sustain life, it contains calcium and phosphate to allow bones to grow. In fact, milk contains so much calcium and phosphate that they should form an insoluble precipitate. However this does not happen. Why? The essential factor is that calcium and phosphate are in the form of very small clusters (diameter 2,5 nanometers) of ions embedded in a complex protein particle called the casein micelle (with a radius of 100 nanometers).

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Understanding the cells

Our understanding of living processes at the molecular level continues to make extraordinary progress, thanks to a battery of complementary analytical techniques, of which neutron scattering methods developed at the ILL are a growing component. One of the most dramatic advances over the past two decades has been the unravelling of the genetic code which controls the molecular machinery of cells.

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The selection of highlights hereafter - extracted from the ILL annual reports - give a flavour of what can be achieved with neutrons in the field.


The neutron techniques

Substitution with deuterium

This is the basis of an ingenious technique called contrast variation where we can ‘highlight’ parts of a structure by replacing the constituent hydrogen atoms with the stronger-scattering deuterium. Since biological molecules are best studied in water (so as to mimic their natural environment), they are most easily seen if they scatter much more strongly than the surrounding water or vice versa.
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