How some plants evolved to depend on fire for survival

Researchers based at Monash University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History have pioneered the use of nuclear imaging techniques at ANSTO’s Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering to resolve long-standing gaps in knowledge of the evolution of plants, including Australian natives, that adapted to depend on fires.

Their work has highlighted the key role of wildfires* in the evolution of floral ecosystems.

Dr Chris Mays, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Swedish Museum of Natural History and Research Affiliate at Monash University, has used fossils of plant reproductive structures, like pine cones, to show how they have adapted to fire.

Plants are known to have adapted during two pivotal intervals in their evolutionary history: a mass extinction event in the end Permian period (252 million years ago) and the rise of the flowering plants during the mid-Cretaceous hothouse period  (120–95 million years ago).

“These extreme warming periods were evolutionary ‘bottlenecks’, through which only fire-adapted plants survived. The evolutionary legacy is all around us in Australia, where a huge proportion of the plants today have fire-adaptive traits,” said Mays.

Using neutron tomography on Dingo, the researchers were able to virtually extract images of amber from within fossils and differentiate plant tissues.

“Neutron tomography is an ideal method for non-destructive, three-dimensional imaging of organically preserved, or ‘coalified’, fossil plants. These are the most common types of plant fossils in the rock record,” said Mays.

Because neutrons can easily penetrate through dense sediments, they can be used to see details of extremely fragile fossils, like those of coalified plants, without the need for meticulous extraction. This minimalist approach to fossil preparation ensures that such delicate fossils remain well-preserved in their protective sediments.

The plant fossils are hydrogen-rich, which means they stand out in contrast to the surrounding rock matrix when imaged with high-resolution neutron tomography.

“Neutrons can successfully differentiate fossil plant tissue that is compositionally similar, where other techniques routinely fail,” said Mays.

X-ray tomography on the Imaging and Medical beamline at the Australian Synchrotron was also undertaken to supplement the neutron investigations.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image: Dr Maggie-Anne Harvey (left) and Dr Andrew Langendam preparing fossil plant specimens on Dingo

Credit: ANSTO

Delivering drugs using nanocrystals

Monash University researchers have used advanced techniques at ANSTO to investigate the production of new, elongated polymer nanocapsules with a high payload of drug nanocrystals to potentially increase drug targetability, and also decrease dosage frequency and side effects.

This method had not been investigated previously and represents a pioneering method of investigation in the field of colloidal science applications for drug delivery.

Nanoparticles have been used to increase the delivery efficiency of cancer therapy because of their biocompatibility, versatility and the easiness of functionalisation.

The team engineered novel elongated polymer nanocapsules, which are unlike the more well-known spherical nanocapsules.

The elongated polymer nanocapsules were made with elongated liposomes or surfactant vesicles and used drug nanocrystals as a template. 

The results provided strong evidence that the elongated structure could be retained, and also confirmed that the loading method to form rod-like drug nanocrystals inside liposomes was a practical solution.

The combination of the high drug payload, in the form of encapsulated nanocrystals, and the non-spherical feature of liposomes represented a more efficient delivery system.

Spherical hollow nanocapsules have been studied extensively, but the formation of elongated nanocapsules containing active pharmaceuticals as therapeutic agents has been previously largely unsuccessful. 

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image: Elongated nanocapsules can be prepared by polymerisation at the surface of elongated liposome templates with drug nanocrystals

Research finds possible key to long term COVID-19 symptoms

Key Points

  • Researchers from La Trobe University have identified a key mechanism that may link COVID-19 infection and lung damage
  • Lung damage is one of the possible long term effects of COVID-19
  • The macromolecular crystallography beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron continue to provide insights into the structural biology of COVID-19 

The Macromolecular and microfocus beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron continue to be an invaluable resource for studies in structural biology relating to COVID-19.

This week researchers from La Trobe University reported that they have identified a key mechanism in how SARS-CoV-2 damages lung tissue.

Some patients report long term-COVID symptoms affecting their breathing for months after recovering from an initial COVID-19 infection.

Read more on ANSTO website

How ventilation might impact blood flow in ventilated preterm babies

A large international collaboration led by researchers from the Hudson Institute for Medical Research and Monash University has revealed that the ventilation of preterm babies to prevent lung collapse could create a risk of brain injury.  

A/Prof Flora Wong, a researcher at Hudson Institute and Monash University, and consultant neonatologist at Monash Children’s Hospital, and a team of physiologists used the Imaging and Medical beamline (IMBL) at the Australian Synchrotron to acquire extremely clear and detailed images of blood vessels in large, preterm clinical models, in an investigation to determine if the pressure of lung ventilation affected blood vessels and blood flow.

A/Prof Wong said the group have shown that higher lung pressure causes engorgement and stretching of the brain blood vessels, which could slow down blood flow in the brain. 

 “This may play a role in preterm brain injury,” she said.

Because of the findings, A/Prof Wong alerted hospitals to carefully monitor their ventilation of preterm babies, who now survive after as few as 23 weeks gestation.

IMBL Principal Scientist Dr Daniel Hausermann, a co-author on the paper published in The Journal of Physiology, said that in vivo CT imaging of dynamic physiological processes, such as blood flow, can be captured quickly in real-time video on the IMBL beamline.

Read more on the Australian synchrotron website

Image: Micro-angiography showing micro-vessels

The performance of materials in extreme environments

Key Points

  • Understanding how materials will perform in extreme environments is crucial to the development of new energy technologies, Australia’s defence capabilities and space exploration
  • ANSTO are leaders in the characterisation of materials from the atomistic to macroscopic scales. This is needed to fully understand performance and service life in extreme environments
  • ANSTO has world-leading infrastructure and materials research expertise to characterise materials for extreme environments

ANSTO researchers investigate how materials behave in extreme environments, providing information that is vital to support the development of our industries.

Extreme environments include situations where materials are exposed to a combination of different conditions, including high temperature, radiation, corrosion and mechanical load.

Read more on the ANSTO website

image: A/Prof Ondrej Muransky describes the capabilities at ANSTO to research materials that operate in extreme environments, such as nuclear reactors

Building knowledge of changes in uranium chemistry

ANSTO’s considerable expertise in characterising uranium-containing compounds has contributed to a new systematic investigation of the origins of atomic structural distortions in a family of actinide compounds.

These compounds are known as rutile-related mixed metal ternary (three-part) uranium oxides. Rutile refers to mineral compounds composed primarily of titanium dioxide.

In research published in Inorganic Chemistry, a large team of researchers used both neutron and synchrotron radiation and theoretical calculations to establish systematically precise and accurate crystal structures and uranium oxidation states in the rutile-related mixed metal ternary uranium oxide systems.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image:  Dr Zhaoming Zhang, Principal Research Scientist, Nuclear Fuel Cycle, ANSTO

Credit: ANSTO

Understanding what makes COVID-19 more infectious than SARS

Australian and International researchers continue to have rapid access to the macromolecular and microfocus beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron to solve protein structures in the fight against COVID-19.

“Since coming out of a hard lockdown, we are now accepting proposals for other research,” said Principal Scientist Dr Alan Riboldi-Tunnicliffe.

“Because scientists can access the beamline remotely, they do not have to worry about changes to borders and travel restrictions.”

There have been a number of COVID-19 publications, which included structural information about key proteins in the virus, from the beamlines.

Instrument scientist Dr Eleanor Campbell reports that an international team of researchers led by the University of Bristol (UK) have identified a possible cause of SARS-CoV-2’s increased infectivity compared to SARS-CoV (the virus which emerged in China in 2003) , which could provide a target for developing COVID-19 therapies.

Australian collaborators included researchers from the Institute of Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, who sent the samples to the Australian Synchrotron.

Read more on the Australian Synchrotron website

Research to support optimum care for ventilated preterm babies

A large international collaboration led by researchers from the Hudson Institute for Medical Research and Monash University has revealed that the ventilation of preterm babies to prevent lung collapse could create a risk of brain injury.  

A/Prof Flora Wong, a researcher at Hudson Institute and Monash University, and consultant neonatologist at Monash Children’s Hospital, and a team of physiologists used the Imaging and Medical beamline (IMBL) at the Australian Synchrotron to acquire extremely clear and detailed images of blood vessels in large, preterm clinical models, in an investigation to determine if the pressure of lung ventilation affected blood vessels and blood flow.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image: Micro-angiography showing micro-vessels

Producing less costly, greener hydrogen peroxide

Australian researchers led by the University of New South Wales have used the Australian Synchrotron to understand how the chemical structure of an advanced catalytic material contributes to its stability and efficiency. The approach has the potential to produce hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) in a process that is cost-effective with less harm to the environment.

Hydrogen peroxide is an important chemical that used widely in a range of applications, including wastewater treatment, disinfection, paper/pulp bleaching, semi-conductor cleaning, mining and metal processing, fuel cells and in chemical synthesis.

According to an international market research group, IMARC, the global hydrogen peroxide market size was valued at US$4.0 billion in 2017 and is increasing.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image: The optimized geometry structures of bare CoN4 moiety and CoN4 moieties with different coverages of epoxy oxygen. The gray, blue, orange and red balls represent C, N, Co and O atoms, respectively [Reprinted with permission by Creative Commons License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)]

Secrets of spider web strength revealed

An international collaboration between the University of MelbourneUniversity of Bayreuth and ANSTO’s Australian Synchrotron provides the first insights into how the rare silk of the Australian basket-web spider retains its strength and resilient structure— allowing the spider to make a robust and rather exquisite silken basket.  

The silk is so firm and remarkable that it enables the basket web to maintain its structural integrity without any support from the surrounding vegetation.

The insights into physical and chemical properties of this basket-web silk may be useful for the production of artificial spider silks, which have already shown strong potential as an advanced biomimetic material in textile and medical applications.

“The biochemical makeup of the silk thread cross-section, particularly secondary protein structures and complex carbohydrates, was examined on the Infrared Microspectroscopy (IRM) beamline at the Australian Synchrotron,” said beamline scientist and co-author, Dr Pimm Vongsvivut.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image: Credit:  Hanyl et al, “Free-standing spider silk webs of the thomisid Saccodomus Formivorus are made of composites comprising micro- and submicron fibers,” Scientific Reports10, 17624 (2020)

Investigating high temperature superconductors

Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low Energy Electronic Technologies (FLEET) used the Soft X-ray Spectroscopy beamline at the Australian Synchrotron to investigate the structure of a promising high-temperature superconductor, a calcium-doped graphene material.

The FLEET Centre has provided a detailed description of the research, published in The Chemistry of Materials, on their website.

In characterising the material, the investigators wanted to clarify where the calcium went after it was added to a sample consisting of a single layer of graphene on a silicon carbide substrate.

Measurements at the Australian Synchrotron were able to pinpoint that the calcium atoms were located, unexpectedly, near the silicon carbide surface.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image: Dr Anton Tadich (far right) with SXR beamline team members and researchers from the FLEET Centre.

Research could lead to better herbicides and infection treatments

Researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ) have used the Australian Synchrotron and cryo-electron microscopy in China to determine the three-dimensional structure of a complex enzyme found in plants microbes that could be used to develop advanced herbicides and treatments for infection.

A large international team led by Prof Luke Guddat of UQ published the structure of the enzyme acetohydroxyacid synthase (AHAS) in the journal Nature and also explained the first step in how the enzyme regulates the biosynthesis of three essential amino acids, leucine, valine and isoleucine.

“The way that the complex regulates this pathway had been unknown until now. We were finally able to explain it by understanding how the entire structure was assembled,” said Prof Guddat, who has been researching this enzyme for twenty years.

Read more on the Australian Synchrotron website

Image: The 3D structure resembles a ‘Maltese Cross’.

Significant progress on ultraflexible solar cells

Research from Monash University, the University of Tokyo and RIKEN, partly undertaken at the Australian Synchrotron, has produced an ultra-flexible ultra-thin organic solar cell that delivered a world-leading performance under significant stretching and strain.

The development paves the way forward for a new class of stretchable and bendable solar cells in wearable devices, such as fitness and health trackers, and smart watches with complex curved surfaces.

The advance, which was published in Joule, was made possible by designing an ultra-thin material based on a blend of polymer, fullerene and non-fullerene molecules with the desired mechanical properties and power efficiency, according to Dr Wenchao Huang, a Research Fellow at Monash University and the article’s first author.
The thickness of the solar cell film is only three micrometres, which is ten times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Dr Huang, who completed his PhD in the lab of Prof Chris McNeill at Monash on flexible organic solar cells, received the Australian Synchrotron’s Stephen Wilkins Medal in 2016 for his exceptional doctoral thesis that made use of the synchrotron-based research capabilities at the facility.

>Read more no the Autralian Lightsource at ANSTO website

Image: Schematic of ultraflexible solar cell

Expertise in characterising materials for lithium ion batteries

Pioneering work on materials for energy production, such as lithium ion batteries, has made ANSTO a centre of specialist capabilities and expertise.

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In addition to the research on lithium-ion batteries; the team also investigates other types of batteries that can reversibly host ions, such as sodium and potassium ion batteries. 
Dr Christophe Didier, a post-doc working with Peterson at the ACNS and shared with Peterson’s University of Wollongong collaborators, published work in Advanced Energy Materials providing structural insights into layered manganese oxide electrodes for potassium-Ion batteries.
“In this case, we were able to use X-rays on an operating battery at the Australian Synchrotron,  because potassium has a lot more electrons than lithium.”
These results again confirm the importance of understanding the detailed structural evolution that underpins performance that will inform the strategic design of electrode materials for high-performance potassium ion batteries. “We do have many collaborators but we are always interested in new projects.  Because we are knowledgeable in the materials themselves, we can contribute to the selection of suitable materials as well as leading the characterisation effort.

>Read more on the Australian Synchrotron (ANSTO) website

Image: Powder diffraction instrument scientist, Dr Qinfen Gu at the Australian Synchrotron.

Stopping yellow spot fungus that attacks wheat crops

Scientists from the Centre for Crop and Disease Management (CCDM) and Curtin University in Western Australia have used an advanced imaging technique at the Australian Synchrotron for an in-depth look at how a fungus found in wheat crops is damaging its leaves.

Prof Mark Gibberd, director of the Centre, said the investigation was thought to be one of the first that utilised high-resolution X-ray imaging to examine biotic stress related to fungal infection in wheat.
Using X-ray fluorescence microscopy (XFM) on leaf samples collected from wheat plants, the team, which included project leader Dr Fatima Naim and ARC Future Fellow Dr Mark Hackett, mapped specific elements in the leaves in and around points of infection.

“Our research project looks at the physiological impact of plant diseases, such as yellow spot, on the function of leaves” said Gibberd.
Yellow spot is a ubiquitous fungal disease caused by Pyrenophora tritici-repentis (Ptr). It can reduce grain yields by up to 20 per cent – a significant amount which could be the difference between a profitable and non-profitable crop for a farmer.
In Australia, it is one of the most costly diseases to the wheat industry, with wheat yield losses due to yellow spot estimated at over $210 million per year. 

>Read more on the Autralisan Synchrotron at ANSTO website

Image: FM image reveals elements present in yellow spot fungs and the wheat leaves.
Credit: Curtin University

Progress on Project Bright beamlines

The complex engineering of scientific instruments is explored in this ‘behind the scenes’ look at the installation of frontends for two new beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron.

Good progress has been made on the installation of supporting infrastructure for the first of the new beamlines for the Australian Synchrotron as part of Project Br–ght.
The work is a series of complex engineering tasks that require precise planning, the expertise of applied mechanical engineering, controls engineering and supporting technicians.
Importantly, the majority of installation works could only be done during periods when the synchrotron was not operational.

Installation of the ‘frontends’ for two new beamlines, Medium Energy X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (MEX) and Biological Small Angle X-ray Scattering (BioSAX) is now complete with final commissioning tasks on schedule. Completion is expected during the coming Christmas shutdown, according to Senior Engineering Manager Brad Mountford.
The ‘frontend” is the physical conduit that carries powerful synchrotron light from the main storage ring through the shield wall that surrounds the ring.

>Read more on the Australian Synchrotron (ANSTO) website

>Discover the Project BR-GHT here