India joins hands with Europe's synchrotron powerhouse

Kate Telma

doi:10.1038/nindia.2017.69 Published online 19 June 2017

India became an associate member of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) based in Grenoble, France today (19 July 2017),  opening doors for Indian scientists to multiple beamlines and cutting edge technology at Europe's best known synchrotron powerhouse. India's three-year agreement with ESRF is expected to boost the country's research in materials and living matter.

Sudhanshu Vrati, Executive Director of the Regional Centre for Biotechnology, Faridabad signed the agreement with ESRF Director General Francesco Sette, making India the 22nd member country of ESRF.

The agreement, which would cost India around Rs 17.50 crore, comes after another successful collaboration between India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory to access BM14, a single beamline of the ESRF. Initially, there was skepticism about the demand for x-ray resources, according to DBT secretary  Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, as there were only a handful of people in the corner of the room at DBT's announcement ceremony. But during the 8-year partnership, 58 groups from across the country vied for time at the beamline. Indian depositions in the Protein Data Bank rose to an all-time high of more than 250 in 2014 — but then plateaued, because the BM14 beamline has some limitations and cannot image small proteins or membrane proteins.

“The decision of India to join the European synchrotron is a milestone in a collaboration that has been going on for many years,” Sette said. 

India's Science and Tecnology Minister Harsh Vardhan said “[I] don’t recall a programme where 90% of the people are of the youngish type — and now, the hall is overwhelmed by their presence.”

While the ESRF-India agreement focuses on structural biology, scientists from every field are encouraged to submit proposals. The partnership enables access to all beamlines at ESRF, including high intensity beamlines and small angle x-ray scattering equipment, and to a cryo-electron microscopy facility, once the facility is completed early next year. 

Many in the audience — ranging from summer fellowship students just learning to grow protein crystals, to senior professors — were excited at the prospects. ESRF has been accepting proposals from Indian scientists since September 2016, to avoid any interruption in access when the BM14 arrangement came to a close late last year. 

“We are very excited about the cryo-EM facility Indian scientists will have access to at ESRF,” said Manidipa Banerjee, an associate professor at IIT Delhi who studies virus-host interactions. “It will be a huge benefit to the Indian structural biology community.”

While many countries and individual institutions are building beamline facilities around the world, Sette stressed the community building aspect of the ESRF-India collaboration. “Access to ESRF has a major advantage to form a community,” he said, “one thing is to have a machine, and another is to have a machine that serves the community.”