CCP4 Crystallographic School South Africa 2021

Data Collection to Structure Refinement and BeyondDigital Conference

The first CCP4 Crystallographic School South Africa took place on the 22 February – 5 March 2021 hosted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  More than 90 attendees – including 39 students and postdoctoral researchers represented by 14 different nationalities – participated in the workshop, which covered fundamental topics relating to theoretical concepts and practical approaches in protein structure solution by X-ray crystallography.

The event involved both newly emerging scientists as well as seasoned experts from across Africa, the UK, Europe, the USA, and Australia and was supported and co-hosted by the GCRF START grant, the UK’s national synchrotron – Diamond Light Source (Diamond), the Collaborative Computational Project Number 4 (CCP4), and the University of Cape Town (UCT). The workshop consisted of informal social events, formal lectures, question and answer sessions, one-on-one tutorials on data processing, case studies, and data collection where students collected data remotely from Diamond or provided their own data.

Aerial Coastal view of Cape Town, South Africa. ©CCP4_mx Crystallographic School, South Africa

Describing the impact on the small but growing structural biology community in Africa, workshop co-organiser, Professor Trevor Sewell from UCT’s Aaron Klug Centre for Imaging and Analysis, said,

The value of knowing a protein structure is widely appreciated by the scientific community but the knowledge and experience of how protein structures are determined is rare in Africa. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that we remain ignorant of this key area of science that has already led to successful vaccines and may lead to valuable drugs at our peril. The pandemic has also focused our minds on finding new ways of working and this has enabled us to hold this extraordinary workshop remotely. This has enabled African students to engage with the world’s best without the need to travel.”

“The success of the new medium was extraordinary and can potentially be extended to cover all fields. The workshop was the brainchild of Dr Carmien Tolmie from the University of the Free State here in South Africa, and it owes its success to her dedication and organizational abilities. We are grateful for the generous sponsorship from the National Research Foundation, IUPAP and the IUCr, which made this trendsetting virtual workshop possible,” Prof. Sewell added.

Three beamlines at Diamond Light Source, namely i03, i04 and i24, were dedicated to the remote data collection of students’ protein crystals, and each student was allocated to a beamline appropriate for their crystal system, as well as one-on-one assistance from beamline scientists. The workshop also had a coordinated effort involving beamline scientists from Diamond’s MX team. Diamond MX support scientists and co-hosts of the workshop – Felicity Bertram, Elliot Nelson and Marco Mazzorana – ensured the samples belonging to the workshop participants reached the correct beamline for the dedicated data collection day, in addition to organising access to the computing resources at Diamond Light Source for the data processing sessions.

Aerial view of the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source, located on the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire, UK. ©Diamond Light Source

Commenting on the importance of co-hosting the event from a South African perspective, Dr Carmien Tolmie said,

“It is an immense privilege to be part of the organization of this workshop and I am extremely grateful to the other members of the organization who worked extremely hard to make sure that this workshop was realized, despite the numerous setbacks we encountered because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to the high cost associated with traveling overseas to attend CCP4 workshops on other continents, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from and engage with experts on crystallographic data processing for many of the participants attending this workshop. These are scarce skills, and this workshop will greatly aid in developing human capital in the country, as well as have a marked impact on advancing the projects of the participants who attended the workshop.”

For some of the students this was the first time attending a crystallographic workshop, including Taryn Adams, an MSc student recently starting a project in protein structure and function. Taryn heard about the workshop through her supervisor, Professor Yasien Sayed, head of the Protein Structure and Function Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Taryn said,

In science, success is often achieved with significant collaboration and group learning. I am looking forward to meeting scientists who are also new to the field and those with experience who could advise me as I embark on my project.”

Taryn Adams, an MSc. student from the Protein Structure and Function Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, participating in the 1st CCP4 Crystallographic School South Africa workshop via online platform.
Photo credit: Taryn Adams. ©Diamond Light Source

Another participant, Dr Stanley Makumire, is a GCRF START funded Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town. Stanley said,

“Being a novice in the field of structural biology attending the CCP4 workshop will equip me with the necessary skills for my research project which is to understand the mechanism of the amidase enzyme family. I am also really excited about the remote data collection and data processing tools available on CCP4.”

Dr Stanley Makumire, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town, one of the participants in the 1st CCP4 Crystallographic School in South Africa. Photo credit: Stanley Makumire ©Diamond Light Source

Commenting on the impact of the GCRF START grant on capacity building in the field of structural biology, Dr Gwyndaf Evans, START co-Investigator and Principal beamline scientist on Diamond’s VMXm beamline, said,

“We are seeing critical scientific discoveries and the emergence of a new generation of experts that have resulted directly from our training programmes in advanced methods and the use of synchrotron facilities and tools.” 

Dr Phillip Venter at the 1st CCP4 Crystallographic School in South Africa collecting data remotely from the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source.
Photo credit: Phillip Venter ©Diamond Light Source