Neutron Characterisation in Fundamental and Applied Biotechnology
02 Oct 2014



More than 40 scientists came together in September at Cosener’s House in Abingdon, UK, for the first ever Neutron Characterisation in Fundamental and Applied Biotechnology (NCFAB) conference.

​Conference delegates

The three day meeting provided insights into the applications of neutrons in biotechnological research, with lectures given by established experts in biotechnology topics. The conference was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and was jointly organised by STFC’s ISIS facility, University College London, and the University of Delaware.​

Neutron based measurements are well established in colloidal science and studies of synthetic polymers and complex fluids.  Interest has started to develop in fundamental biophysical studies in protein structure and assembly, but many researchers in applied biophysics and the biotechnology industry remain relatively unfamiliar with the range of neutron-based techniques and their ability to answer questions about macromolecular structure, morphology, and dynamics in bulk solution and at interfaces. 

The inaugural meeting provided a venue for students and established researchers to come together to discuss the applications of neutron science on fundamental studies of proteins and other biological macromolecules. The long-term aim of the meeting is to enhance the use of these techniques in the biotechnology industry. Such industrial applications could include the development of biosensors or more efficient drug delivery systems.

The first day of the meeting consisted of lectures given by researchers who often use neutron facilities for their experiments. The talks focussed on fundamental biophysical systems, with insights into biological aggregation, the dynamics and interactions displayed by proteins, atomistic modelling of antibodies and protein stability. A diverse range of experiments and experimental techniques were discussed, emphasising the importance and versatility of neutrons.

The talks were followed by a poster session, in which both students and scientists showcased their work involving neutron scattering measurements. A poster prize was awarded during the conference dinner on the second day. Posters were judged on the quality of the science, and the clarity and appearance of the poster itself. This was awarded to Elias Pambou, a PhD student from the Biological Physics Group at the University of Manchester, for his poster entitled “Interactions of non-ionic surfactants with reconstituted ultrathin films of cuticular waxes”. This describes his work into plant cuticular waxes and the effects of surfactants upon wax structure, composition and transport barrier properties.

The second day continued with lectures that focussed more heavily on the industrial applications of neutrons in biotechnology. Particular areas explored included self-assembly of biological molecules, aggregation and phase behaviour, biomolecule adsorption to interfaces and the effect of hydration and interactions with co-solutes.

Dr Christopher Frost, from STFC’s ISIS facility, gave a talk outlining the process by which industrial users obtain beam time. Industrial scientists are now a significant proportion of ISIS users, representing 15% of applications for beam time. Neutrons can offer a number of applications for the biotechnology sector, and so there is huge potential for the biotechnology industry to make use of neutron facilities such as ISIS.

The third and final day of the meeting consisted of a post-conference workshop, which offered the delegates a chance to visit STFC’s ISIS facility. This visit included talks introducing the various techniques that can be used by neutrons, and a tour of the ISIS experimental halls. The techniques explored by the speakers were Neutron Reflectivity, Small Angle Neutron Scattering (SANS) and Quasi-Elastic Neutron Scattering (QENS), all of which have biological applications. The tour of the ISIS facility allowed the attending delegates to see the instruments they heard about in the talks prior to the tour, and highlighted the significance of neutron scattering techniques for research in biotechnology.

The conference organisers now hope that this will be a biennial meeting. Dr Daniel Bracewell, from Department of Biochemical Engineering at University College London, said ‘’Our hope as organisers of this inaugural event was to create a programme and environment to engage in constructive debate on the subject neutron scattering techniques in the biotech sector. The support of our keynotes from the US and Europe achieved the former, the great weather and venue helped create the latter alongside active participation of all delegates. I for one left enthused about the future for the area and with several new ideas for future projects and collaborations.’’

Dr Luke Clifton, from the Large Scale Structures group at ISIS added “At the meeting there was a fantastic dialogue between existing neutron scattering users and researchers from academia and industry who work in the biotechnology field. I was particularly happy to see such a diverse range of science in the talks and posters. I hope that we will continue to see an increase in the use of neutron scattering techniques by the biotech industry”.

Dr Ann Terry, also from the Large Scale Structures group at ISIS said “The meeting helped to bring neutron scattering to the attention of industrial researchers, especially as the speakers focussed their talks to show the benefits and potential of this technique on complex, highly relevant applications in this area. We hope that the discussions with the various industrial representatives will lead to future research possibilities.”

To discuss potential applications of neutrons in biotechnology, please contact Dr Ann Terry or Dr Luke Clifton.