Abstract: X-ray Free Electron Lasers (XFELs) are relatively new, large scale scientific facilities producing X-ray pulses of femtoseconds duration and unprecedented brilliance. These
pulses provide a wealth of applications across the physical and life sciences particularly through utilizing their ability to probe ultrafast processes, radiation
damage sensitive systems or simply weakly scattering (poor cross-section) systems
that require many photons—and sometimes many spatially coherent photons—to
observe. Of particular note is the field of serial crystallography, which holds
promise to make the study of medically and environmentally relevant proteins both
broader than at present and perhaps more robust.
Notwithstanding XFELs’ contributions to many fields from magnetism to structural
biology their application has, in part, been limited by access (most only allow a
single experiment at a time) and the data rate that can be achieved in a given
experiment (most sources provide a maximum of 120 pulses per second).
Much more recently, a new class of XFEL has been inaugurated in the Hamburg
metropolitan area of Germany. The European XFEL is capable of providing up to
27,000 pulses per second as well as serving distinct photon beams to three experiments
simultaneously. In this presentation I will outline the basic properties of the European
XFEL and how this vastly improved capability can be leveraged for biomolecular
structure determination at the atomic scale, not only for static systems but also for
systems evolving in time. Schedule permitting, I will also describe possible applications
to observing dynamic processes in materials sciences on the micrometer and
microsecond timescale. Along the way I’ll outline why structural biology (still)
requires physicists, as well as some of the open (physical) questions that need to be
addressed before XFELs can be applied to the most challenging structure determination
problems in biology. To close, I’ll look forward to what we might hope can be imaged
with XFELs in the not too distant future.