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Synchrotron expertise established at Stellenbosch University
Author: Media & Communication, Faculty of Science
Published: 05/07/2021

Two researchers from Stellenbosch University's Department of Biochemistry, Dr Anton Hamann and Dr Blake Balcomb, have successfully trained as protein crystallographers thanks to the Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (START) programme.

They were amongst the more than 80 researchers from across Africa to benefit from a £3.7M grant provided by the United Kingdom's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to support the development of synchrotron expertise in Africa.

Africa is currently the only continent in the world, apart from Antarctica, which does not have its own synchrotron facility. A synchrotron, which can cover an area of more than six football fields, uses powerful magnets to accelerate electrons in a fixed closed loop path to generate beams of light that are billions of times brighter than our sun. These beams are focused and directed into an experimental station called a beamline, allowing scientists to study materials at an atomic to particle scale.

Prof Erick Strauss, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and co-investigator on the START project, says that the access to the Diamond Light Source (DLS), the UK's national synchrotron, allowed his group to gain expertise that they previously could only access through collaborations.

“Through START we were able to put together the necessary infrastructure and expertise to do this type of research here in South Africa. This investment by the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council really paid off for us."

Dr Hamann, a postdoctoral fellow in Prof Strauss' group, specialises in medicinal chemistry, specifically the development of novel antibacterial compounds that can be used against the human pathogen Staphylococcus aureus.  S. aureus, which has become notoriously resistant to many first line antibiotics, is responsible for the majority of hospital and community acquired infections globally. Closer to home, in South Africa, multiple drug-resistant S. aureus accounts for more than 50% of reoccurring hospital acquired infections.

Thanks to the GCRF START grant, Dr Hamann had the opportunity to visit and use the XChem-facility at the UK's national synchrotron the Diamond Light Source: “I was able to carry out X-ray crystallographic fragment screening experiments, and was introduced to a new field of high-throughput screening where the workflow is almost fully automated."

“To date I have used three different beamlines at Diamond to obtain diffraction data of my S.aureus protein crystals, which was extremely valuable to my research. I have also attended a CCP4 (Collaborative Computational Project Number 4) workshop in York, where I learned how to process the diffraction data to solve the crystal structures."

The collected data of the solved crystal structures will provide Dr Hamann with the necessary information to direct his search for new antistaphylococcal compounds.

Dr Blake Balcomb, also a postdoctoral fellow in Prof Strauss' group, says having access to the cutting-edge facilities at Diamond made a significant impact on his research. He is also grateful for the hands-on training he has received and has become part of a network of specialists in South Africa, Africa and the UK.

Dr Balcomb's research is focused on the interface between the immune response and bacterial pathogens. Specifically, he seeks to understand how bacterial enzymes resist the innate immune response, allowing the bacterial pathogen to proliferate and cause infection. Using the Diamond Light Source, he made exciting discoveries about the way these enzymes work, and how we can potentially interfere with this resistance mechanism. This interference will allow the body's immune system to more effectively counter the infections.

More than 80 scientists from South Africa, Lesotho, Kenya, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Swaziland, Namibia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan benefited from this project. Combined, they have published more than 50 papers and completed more than 230 shifts in the Diamond synchrotron facility. In the process, six fully capable crystallography laboratories were established in South Africa.

About the GCRF START grant

The GCRF START grant is a collaborative project that seeks to foster the development of Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (START). It builds partnerships between world leading scientists in Africa and the UK working together on research using synchrotron science. Funded by the UK's Official Development Assistance (ODA) Global Challenges Research Fund, the GCRF START grant is delivered by UKRI through Diamond shareholders (the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Wellcome Trust). At the heart of START sits the community of co-investigators whose work in the relevant scientific disciplines is world-leading in their fields. They support a wider group of students and postdoctoral researchers whose contribution to START is vital to nurture future capacity and leadership in the African scientific research community. Working on experiments at the UK's synchrotron, Diamond, START researchers and students will bring insights to sustainable energy and improvement in health that will have long-lasting legacies across Africa.

More about the GCRF START grant:

​On the photo above, from left to right, aerial view of the Diamond Light Source Ltd at the Hartwell campus in the United Kingdom, Dr Anton Hamann and Dr Blake Balcomb.