High-throughput biological small-angle X-ray scattering with a robotically loaded capillary cell
With the rise in popularity of biological small-angle X-ray scattering (BioSAXS) measurements, synchrotron beamlines are confronted with an ever-increasing number of samples from a wide range of solution conditions. To meet these demands, an increasing number of beamlines worldwide have begun to provide automated liquid-handling systems for sample loading. This article presents an automated sample-loading system for BioSAXS beamlines, which combines single-channel disposable-tip pipetting with a vacuum-enclosed temperature-controlled capillary flow cell. The design incorporates an easily changeable capillary to reduce the incidence of X-ray window fouling and cross contamination. Both the robot-control and the data-processing systems are written in Python. The data-processing code, RAW, has been enhanced with several new features to form a user-friendly BioSAXS pipeline for the robot. The flow cell also supports efficient manual loading and sample recovery. An effective rinse protocol for the sample cell is developed and tested. Fluid dynamics within the sample capillary reveals a vortex ring pattern of circulation that redistributes radiation-damaged material. Radiation damage is most severe in the boundary layer near the capillary surface. At typical flow speeds, capillaries below 2mm in diameter are beginning to enter the Stokes (creeping flow) regime in which mixing due to oscillation is limited. Analysis within this regime shows that single-pass exposure and multiple-pass exposure of a sample plug are functionally the same with regard to exposed volume when plug motion reversal is slow. The robot was tested on three different beamlines at the Cornell High-Energy Synchrotron Source, with a variety of detectors and beam characteristics, and it has been used successfully in several published studies as well as in two introductory short courses on basic BioSAXS methods.