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EMSL celebrates 20 years of scientific achievement

A unique user facility that has helped scientists around the world shape their ideas and obtain answers to some of the most challenging scientific questions is celebrating two decades of achievement next week.

Scientists, community leaders and others will gather Aug. 3-4 to celebrate the achievements of the first 20 years of EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility located at DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.

Using EMSL resources, scientists worldwide have authored more than 6,000 scientific manuscripts which have garnered more than 200,000 citations as other scientists build on each other's work. Those findings have helped chart the course of subsequent studies and shape the direction of current endeavors.

EMSL was proposed by former PNNL director William R. Wiley to explore connections at the molecular scale between the physical, mathematical and life sciences. While much of its initial focus was on environmental challenges such as the fate and transport of contaminants beneath the surface, the laboratory's scope has grown remarkably. EMSL resources have contributed to important findings about the environment, atmospheric processes, biofuels and bioproducts, microbiology and life sciences, catalysis, energy storage, clean fuels and other topics.

A constant throughout EMSL's years has been the creation of new ways to monitor what's happening at the molecular level in a range of materials and organisms. One of the richest areas of exploration has been in a field known as subsurface science. Much of the leading work on the use of microbes to transform and sequester radioactive waste and heavy metals in soils and deep sediments has been done by scientific users who have come together through EMSL collaborations. Such research has opened up other areas, such as a deeper understanding of microbial communities that are important for the production of biofuels and bioproducts.

EMSL scientists have led the way to develop new ways of looking at whole proteins in live cells of bacteria and other organisms, yielding a broad view of how proteins actually carry out their functions in real time. And EMSL scientists have worked with colleagues around the country to solve the structures of proteins that contribute to infectious disease — a critical step for the creation of vaccines or better treatments someday.

In the area of energy storage, scientific users have made some of the best real-time observations ever made about what's actually happening to the materials inside a battery as it operates. The findings about battery chemistry, including how a battery loses energy as it stores and releases its charge, have contributed to our knowledge about how to develop longer-lasting, higher-capacity batteries.

One of EMSL's most widely-known contributions is the creation of NWChem, an open-source high-performance-computing software package that helps scientists understand problems in the realm of molecular chemistry and biochemistry. The software, which helps scientists simulate molecular structures and reaction mechanisms, has been downloaded more than 70,000 times.

The EMSL facility covers an area bigger than four football fields, filled with premier instruments for molecular environmental science and with a production computing system, all designed to help scientists answer important questions about the environment, biology and energy. But more important than the instruments is the scientific expertise and leadership EMSL personnel offer to users. EMSL is home to more than 150 scientists, many with unique expertise. Collectively these scientists have centuries' worth of knowledge about what type of molecule might yield its secrets to, say, an NMR probe vs. a more conventional mass spectrometer, or when a measure of an organism's proteins will yield more meaningful information than a measure of its DNA.

By working with both experimental and computational scientists who have come from more than 40 nations as well every state in the United States, EMSL personnel have a feel for the pulse of research in a way that few user facilities possess. Every visitor brings unique knowledge and questions that remain part of the EMSL brain trust long after they depart, informing subsequent explorations.

"Scientific user facilities like EMSL bring together the resources, the tools, and most importantly the people to solve some of the most difficult scientific challenges," said Liyuan Liang, EMSL director. "Scientists from academic, industry and laboratories across the world join forces to tackle problems that otherwise might go unaddressed simply because they are too complex and challenging for any one scientist. We bring teams of scientists together to enable discovery."

One of the most exciting areas for EMSL now is its working relationships with other DOE Office of Science User Facilities, including the Joint Genome Institute and the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility. Each offers unique resources, and for certain questions the suite of facilities offers an uncommonly broad view of certain scientific challenges.

The agenda next week includes a scientific symposium with a talk by X. Sunney Xie, a former EMSL scientist and now Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard, who will speak about "life at the single molecule level."

Also next week is a scientific meeting on "Multi-omics for microbiomes." More than 150 scientists from around the world will gather in Pasco, Wash. Aug. 1-3 to discuss the activity of communities of microbes and their importance everywhere from our bodies to the planet. The meeting is sponsored both by EMSL, as its annual meeting for its users, and by the laboratory's Microbiomes in Transition initiative.

Distribution channels: Technology