June 22, 2020

COVID-19 Research at SLAC

COVID-19 Research at SLAC

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COVID-19 Research at SLAC

Here’s a look at what we’re doing to make a difference in the global fight against COVID-19.

To stop the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists need to learn a lot more about how the virus that causes the disease, SARS-CoV-2, breaks into cells and turns them into virus assembly lines that spread infection. They also need to identify its weaknesses – places where it can be blocked or attacked. This information is critical for designing vaccines to prevent infection and drugs to treat it.

SLAC joins the global fight against COVID-19

SLAC is uniquely equipped to do this work; in fact, we’ve been doing it for decades. At our large-scale facilities, which are open to scientists from all over the world, powerful beams of X-rays and electrons probe the structures and functions of proteins and other molecular machines that make all living things tick, including our bodies and the microbes that make us sick.

Among other things, these studies can reveal whether a potential drug molecule fits snugly enough into a pocket on the virus to keep it from functioning, and how specific parts of the virus interact with immune system cells that are supposed to protect us.

Our researchers are leading the development of global standards to make testing for coronavirus virus, and for the antibodies the body makes in response to infection, more reliable.

They’re also participating in Department of Energy working groups that coordinate a wide range of coronavirus research, from building low-cost emergency ventilators to finding the best ways to decontaminate face masks.

Our collaborations with Stanford University, our fellow national labs and other partners, from research institutions to industry, help move these efforts forward.

Below are some examples of this ongoing work.




Research Updates

University of Alberta researcher Joanne Lemieux

August 27, 2020

In a search for COVID-19 treatments, researchers pursue a drug used on cats
University of Alberta researchers worked with SLAC X-ray scientists to explore the potential of a feline coronavirus drug that may be effective against SARS-CoV-2.


low-cost emergency ventilator

August 13, 2020   

SLAC scientists invent low-cost emergency ventilator and share the design for free
The technology could save the lives of COVID-19 patients when more advanced ventilators are too expensive or not available.


SLAC’s new X-ray beamline

August 3, 2020   

SLAC’s new X-ray beamline aids COVID-19 research
Scientists are deploying this state-of-the-art X-ray crystallography facility to study biological molecules related to the COVID-19 pandemic.


X-ray laser facility 

July 17, 2020   

SLAC’s upgraded X-ray laser facility produces first light
Using the facility's brand new undulators, researchers will investigate the inner workings of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.


Covid-19 virus under a microscope

April 16, 2020   

SLAC joins the global fight against COVID-19
The lab is responding to the coronavirus crisis by imaging disease-related biomolecules, developing standards for reliable coronavirus testing and enabling other essential research.



Our Tools and techniques

How we study the virus

Knowing how the coronavirus is put together and how it operates at an atomic and molecular level is crucial for designing vaccines to prevent infection and drugs to treat it. SLAC uses X-rays and electrons to explore the virus’s atomic structure and understand how it infects and hijacks our cells.


X-ray crystallography

At SLAC’s synchrotron X-ray light source, SSRL, and at its X-ray laser, LCLS, researchers shoot powerful X-ray beams at crystallized viral proteins. By analyzing the pattern of X-rays that bounce off, scientists determine the protein’s atomic structure and how that structure changes as the protein binds to other molecules, such as potential drug candidates or components of the immune system.




SSRL X-Ray Crystallography Covid-19 Research

Jeney Wierman, a staff scientist at SLAC, explains how SSRL tools are contributing to COVID-19 research. (Olivier Bonin/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at SSRL crystallography research featuring staff scientist Jeney Wierman.





Cryogenic Electron Microscopy

In SLAC’s cryo-EM facilities, scientists flash-freeze bits of a virus in place, then fire electrons at them to look at their atomic structures and how those structures bend and twist. They can even look at an entire frozen virus. These incredibly detailed snapshots help reveal how viruses infect cells and what they do once inside.





Our people

Meet the Researchers

Here are some of the SLAC scientists working on projects related to COVID-19.

Aina Cohen

Aina Cohen
Senior Staff Scientist, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
(Photo courtesy of the SSRL-SMB group/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)


Wah Chiu
Professor of Photon Science at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, of Bioengineering, and of Microbiology and Immunology
(Andrew Brodhead/Stanford)


Marc Salit
Senior Staff Scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
(Andrew Brodhead/Stanford)


Thomas Weiss

Thomas Weiss
Senior Research Engineer at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
(Andrew Brodhead/Stanford)






SLAC in times of COVID: Behind the scenes.

On March 16, 2020, the majority of our SLAC staff began working from home to follow the Bay Area counties' shelter-in-place orders. Some workers remained and others eventually returned to the lab to support COVID-19 related research conducted at our scientific facilities or resume construction on major projects. This album features a behind-the-scenes look at the lab during the pandemic. Photos will be added on an ongoing basis, so please check back for the latest.

View full album on Flickr





Part of this work is funded by the DOE Office of Science. SSRL and LCLS are DOE Office of Science user facilities. Experimental stations for X-ray crystallography and X-ray scattering are part of the SSRL Structural Molecular Biology Program, which is supported by the DOE Office of Biological and Environmental Research and by the NIH, National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The Cryo-EM centers are funded by the NIH Common Fund Transformative High Resolution Cryo-Electron Microscopy Program and National Institute of General Medical Sciences Biomedical Technology Research Resource Program. JIMB is hosted by SLAC in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Stanford.  

Editor's note: The studies described in this feature do not use infectious materials, such as live viruses.

SLAC is a vibrant multiprogram laboratory that explores how the universe works at the biggest, smallest and fastest scales and invents powerful tools used by scientists around the globe. With research spanning particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology, materials, chemistry, bio- and energy sciences and scientific computing, we help solve real-world problems and advance the interests of the nation.

SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.