Let's talk about lab water
Let's talk about lab water
Water management isn’t just important in the lab, it’s a vital process for the survival of all organisms on the planet. Cells have to continually regulate their levels of water: too little and the cell will shrink; too much and the cell can literally burst – which is bad news for the organism! Osmoregulation is therefore a pretty big deal. Water moves in and out of cells in two ways: via osmosis across the membrane, or through a set of specialized protein channels known as aquaporins.
Aquaporins are transmembrane protein channels that permit the specific movement of water molecules across the membrane – excluding ions and other smaller molecules – in a rapid and organised fashion (the water molecules have to move through in single file!). Described as “the plumbing system for cells” by Peter Agre, the Nobel Prize-winning (2003) biochemist who first described them in 1992, aquaporins are capable of high-throughput activities that would put any of our lab devices to shame: a single human aquaporin-1 channel transports water at approximately 3 billion water molecules per second!
By 2001, research teams had started to deduce the structure of these proteins using X-ray crystallography. These experiments were conducted using a synchrotron light source: a specialized particle accelerator that can be used to emit highly focussed beams of light – charged particles travelling at close to the speed of light. These beamlines can then be focussed onto the crystallized protein to create diffraction patterns that allow the crystallographers to start deciphering the protein’s molecular structure. X-ray crystallography really has come a long way since it was used in the discovery of DNA, back in the 1950s.
One such synchrotron in the UK is the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire. First opened in 2007, Diamond is used to accelerate electrons around a half kilometer track, kept in place by powerful magnets. Situated around the circumference of Diamond are numerous ‘hutches’ – mini labs where scientists can make use of the passing beamlines for X-ray crystallography and other experiments.
Protein crystallization and subsequent diffraction techniques, like those used in the discovery of aquaporins, require a high level of reagent quality – any impurities can lead to serious errors in the data. To facilitate the great science happening at Diamond, ELGA were selected to supply high quality, ultra-pure water to all laboratories at the Diamond site. With such high precision work being conducted across such a broad range applications, it was essential that water of such a high standard was available on demand.
Great reagents really do drive great science – we can’t promise a Nobel Prize like Peter Agre and his discovery of aquaporins, but making use of the best available reagents is a great first step!
For more information on the Diamond Light Source and X-ray crystallography, be sure to check out the Royal Institute’s video.