Funding for Diamond-II approved

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology together with Wellcome, one of the world’s largest biomedical charities, today (Wednesday 6th September) announced approval for the innovative update and expansion programme to the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source, at a total project cost of £519.4M. The investment will see 86% come from the UK Government and 14% from Wellcome, the same proportion that has funded Diamond from its beginning.

The full approval of the upgrade, Diamond-II, is part of a major investment drive in cutting-edge facilities to keep UK researchers and innovators at the forefront of discovery and help address global challenges.  

Sir Adrian Smith, Chair of the Board of Diamond Light Source and President of the Royal Society comments:

We are delighted that the government and the Wellcome Trust have agreed this substantial investment in science infrastructure which will ensure the UK is at the forefront of world class science.  This investment in Diamond-II will strengthen the UK’s global scientific leadership and confirms the UK’s commitment to building on the success Diamond has achieved so far.

Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP, said:

Our national synchrotron may fly under the radar as we go about our daily lives, but it has been crucial to some of the most defining discoveries in recent history – from kickstarting Covid drug development that allowed us to protect millions of Britons to advancing treatment for HIV.

Our investment will ensure one of the most pioneering scientific facilities in the world continues to advance discoveries that transform our health and prosperity, while creating jobs, growing the UK economy and ensuring our country remains a scientific powerhouse.

The overall transformational Diamond-II upgrade will take several years of planning and implementation. This will include a “dark period” of 18 months during which there will be no synchrotron light for the user community, followed by a period to fully launch the new facility with three new flagship beamlines and major upgrades to many other beamlines.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Touring Diamond’s experimental hall during celebrations to mark the funding announcement for Diamond-II.
L to R: Dr Richard Walker, Technical Director and Senior Responsible Owner for Diamond-II, Beth Thompson MBE Chief Strategy Officer at Wellcome, Dr Adrian Mancuso, Diamond’s Physical Science Director, Prof Sir Dave Stuart, Diamond’s Life Sciences Director,  Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP, Sir Adrian Smith, Chair of the Board of Diamond, and Executive Chair of STFC Professor Mark Thomson.

Credit: Diamond Light Source

Deciphering the sugar transport in plants

Synchrotron studies to understand sucrose highway

In most plant species, sucrose is the main form of assimilated carbon produced during photosynthesis. Sucrose is essential for plant growth, as it provides a source of carbon to produce new molecules, but also energy for the plant cells. Sucrose has also an associated role as a signalling molecule, by regulating the growth of new organs, accumulation of storage proteins, and flowering in plants. Long-distance sucrose distribution from the green source tissues, generally leaves, to energy-demanding sink tissues (flowers, fruits, new organ in formation) is mediated by a specific and highly modified vascular tissue called phloem. The transport of sucrose in the phloem is an active transport, as sucrose is loaded in the conductive tissue by specific proteins from the SUC/SUT family. The SUC1 transporter from A. thaliana is located on the membrane of cells and use the proto-motive force to drive the loading of sucrose. Despite their key role in plants, the working mechanism of these SUCs transporters is not yet well understood.

A team of researchers from the Aarhus University recently published a new study in Nature Plants to understand the precise mechanism of action of the SUC1 transporter. They used X-ray diffraction data collected at I04 and I24 beamlines at Diamond to determine the 3D structure of this transmembrane protein. They wanted to understand how SUCs protein recognise sucrose, and how transport is proton coupled. As sugar transport is a key feature in plants, understanding how proteins can fine-tune the sugar concentration in conductive tissue is fundamental. Lead author of this study, Dr Bjørn Panyella Pedersen explained:

Active sucrose transport and loading into the phloem determines the turgor pressure. This pressure creates the vascular flow of nutrients (sucrose and all other components of the sap), and determines which parts of the plant will grow in response to environmental signals. Ultimately, we hope our research will help to augment control of growth and morphology in plants.

For their study, the team used a well-known plant model, Arabidopsis thaliana. This plant is widely used as model because it has a sequenced and annotated genome, and huge collections of mutant lines exists, allowing characterisation of plants where a specific gene is not expressed. Furthermore, this plant has a fast life cycle and produces numerous seeds.

In this study, the researchers present the structure of SUC1, and key elements to explain both the recognition of sucrose by the transporter, and the active transport by proton coupling. They produced SUC1 transporters and performed in-vivo assays to determine if the protein was functioning, and then proceed to solving the structure at the microfocus beamline I24. Dr Bjørn Panyella Pedersen says:

We have used Diamond’s beamlines I24 and I04 for our research since 2014, both in person and by remote data collection. We have always been very happy with the support and quality of the beamlines at Diamond. Brexit and the Corona years have made our access to the facility more challenging at times but with the help from the support staff we have been able to maintain our work at Diamond.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: The 2.7 Å electron density map of SUC1 (2mFo-DFc map contoured at 1σ). Density corresponding to the N and C domain are coloured cyan and orange, respectively. EHR and IHR domains are coloured pale yellow. 

New CEO appointed for the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source

Harwell Campus, UK – 9th August 2023, Professor Gianluigi Botton has been appointed as new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Diamond Light Source

Professor Botton is a renowned expert in microscopy and spectroscopy with an impressive track record in research and funding, having secured more than $50M as Principal Investigator and $90M as a co-investigator and has more than 350 peer-reviewed publications. His work has been cited more than 34,000 times. Over the course of his highly successful career, Gianluigi has been awarded the Microbeam Analysis Society’s Presidential Award (2020), the Metal Physics Award of the Canadian Materials Science Conference (2017); he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (2018) and Fellow of the Microscopy Society of America (2014).

Read more on the Diamond website

Developing a Varifocal X-ray Lens

Diamond scientists have developed the first Alvarez X-ray ‘zoom’ lens for synchrotrons

In the 1960s, scientist Luis Walter Alvarez invented the Alvarez lens, an optical system that uses a pair of lenses to create a variable zoom. The two lenses sit one in front of the other in the optical beam, and a lateral shift of the lenses relative to each other (perpendicular to the beam) changes the optical power of the Alvarez pair. An Alvarez lens requires cubic surfaces that are challenging to fabricate, and it wasn’t until 2000 that researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory were able to create a practical optical Alvarez lens device. However, with the refractive index of all material being very close to 1 for X-rays, X-ray optics are far more challenging. In work recently published in Nature Communications, optics scientists from Diamond’s Optics and Metrology Group have developed an X-ray version that can dynamically vary the position of the focal plane of the X-ray lenses and mirrors used on many synchrotron beamlines. Adding Alvarez X-ray lenses (AXLs) to beamlines could improve the quality of focused X-ray beams and help exploit the higher quality X-rays from next-generation synchrotrons such as Diamond-II.

Next-generation X-ray Optics

Many synchrotron facilities are implementing, or planning to implement, lattice upgrades that both reduce source emittance and increase X-ray coherence. Combined with advances in manufacturing X-ray optics, this means that diffraction-limited focusing of X-rays onto samples is on the horizon. However, optics misalignment and fabrication errors can introduce aberrations into the X-ray focusing system, so correction of the X-ray wavefront may be needed to ensure precise alignment of the beam onto the sample. Where compound X-ray refractive lenses (CRL) are used, a change in the energy of X-rays changes the lens focusing power, moving the focal plane along the z-axis. And in some situations, such as the use of environmental sample chambers, movement of the sample itself is constrained. It would, therefore, be helpful for beamlines to have a mechanism to independently adjust the vertical focus and the longitudinal position of the horizontal focus.

The variable focusing strength of an Alvarez lens means the position of its focus can be changed. However, they had only been used in visible optical systems. Diamond’s Optics Group has now developed an X-ray version that can dynamically vary the position of the focal plane of the X-ray lenses and mirrors used on many beamlines.

Vishal Dhamgaye is a Beamline Scientist working in Diamond’s Optics & Metrology Group, and lead author on the paper. He says:

Our Alvarez X-ray lens (AXL) uses two inline, profiled refractive plates. The concept is the same as the optical Alvarez lens, but the refractor plates are much smaller – 400 microns, with a thickness of 0.4-1.6 mm. Our design was fabricated at the microfabrication facility at the University of Lancaster.

The two refractor plates in the AXL can be independently translated in the direction transverse to the X-rays. Using a pair of AXLs allows beamline staff to change the X-ray focusing in two transverse directions, compensating for astigmatism, defocus and coma aberrations.

Read more on Diamond Light Source  website

Synchrotrons are accelerating dental research to benefit global health

A team of scientists from the University of Oxford and the University of Birmingham have just published one of the most comprehensive multi-disciplinary reviews covering nearly 40 years of discoveries and advancements in the study of enamel and its demineralisation (caries).  The review reveals how synchrotron radiation facilities – such as Diamond Light Source – enabled unprecedented new insights into dental tissue function and degradation at different scales.

Caries remains a debilitating condition that lacks adequate prevention and treatment that demands further research to find innovative ways to overcome its detrimental impact on global health. The disease had a global prevalence of around 2.3 billion in 2017 (in permanent teeth). In addition to the clinical effects of pain and discomfort, aesthetic issues, and eventually tooth loss, it constitutes a huge economic burden, estimated to be billions of USD worldwide in painful disruptive treatments.

The team’s paper; Synchrotron X-ray Studies of the Structural and Functional Hierarchies in Mineralised Human Dental Enamel: A State-of-the-Art Review” was published in the Dentistry Journal 10th Anniversary Issue (April 2023).  Its strategic aim was to identify and evaluate prospective avenues for analysing dental tissues and developing treatments and prophylaxis for improved dental health.

Team leader, Professor Alexander Korsunsky, Professor and Fellow Emeritus at Trinity College, Oxford, explains:

Understanding the mechanism of caries development requires tracing the pathways of the biological, chemical, and structural processes that unfold progressively from the microbial and crystal level up to the macroscopic scale. This necessarily engenders the need to visualise and understand tissue organisation and function, along with its interaction with the microbial and chemical environment, through static and dynamic studies. Synchrotron-based studies offer unique tools for this purpose, due to the versatile interaction of X-ray photons with the organic and inorganic tissue components.

Hard dental tissues possess a complex hierarchical structure that is particularly evident in enamel, the most mineralised substance in the human body. Its complex and interlinked organisation at the Ångstrom (crystal lattice), nano-, micro-, and macro-scales is the result of evolutionary optimisation for mechanical and functional performance: hardness and stiffness, fracture toughness, thermal and chemical resistance.  Understanding the physical–chemical–structural relationships at each scale requires the application of appropriately sensitive and resolving probes.

Dr Cyril Besnard, the lead author, adds:

Currently, about 50 synchrotron facilities worldwide are contributing an outstanding amount of research work along with the continuous improvement of analytical approaches. This is due to the fact that synchrotron X-ray techniques offer the possibility to progress significantly beyond the capabilities of conventional laboratory instruments, i.e., X-ray diffractometers, and electron and atomic force microscopes. The last few decades have witnessed the accumulation of results obtained from X-ray scattering (diffraction), spectroscopy (including polarisation analysis), and imaging (including ptychography and tomography).

The first section of the review briefly covers the structure of the enamel (and dentine), describes dental caries disease and its causative factors, including the nature and organisation of biofilm and its effects on the enamel, and discusses the existing strategies for remineralisation. The second section provides an overview of synchrotron facilities, followed by a description of the application of synchrotron methods to dental tissue studies: diffraction (scattering), imaging (including tomography and ptychography), and spectroscopy.  

Dr Igor Dolbnya, senior beamline scientist on the B16 Test beamline at Diamond, comments:

The modern synchrotron, like the UK’s Diamond Light Source, offers the versatility of utilizing customised experimental setups, which can be categorised based on the type of detector and relevant setup; the energy in use, either soft or hard X-rays (in vacuum or air or liquid); the presence of magnetic fields or temperature control; and the type of monitoring process (static or dynamic analysis) and equipment. The continuous development of synchrotron facilities, techniques, and devices, means that the future will be bright for the research into mineralised tissues.

Read more on Diamond Light Source website

Image: Graphical abstract of the paper

Differences in bumblebee vision help different species share resources

Synchrotron studies of bumblebee eyes show differences between species that help to explain coexistence

A central theme of ecology is understanding how species coexist in an environment. A traditional explanation is that species partition the available resources by space or time, a process called niche partitioning. Different bees, for example, specialise on foraging on specific flower species, and some are physically adapted to do so. However, this specialisation does not provide a complete explanation, as coexisting bee species often overlap in their choice of flowers. Suggestions of complementary or alternative partitioning mechanisms include the selection of microhabitats based on temperature, light and wind conditions. Without a more thorough explanation of the mechanisms that underpin local coexistence, we may struggle to understand the factors behind the ongoing loss of bee diversity. In work recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society Bresearchers from Lund University, Stockholm University and Queen’s University Belfast investigated whether differences in vision allow bumblebee species to forage in different light conditions. Their results show that bumblebees with a higher sensitivity to light forage in dimmer conditions. This study demonstrates the importance of including sensory traits in studies of pollinator habitats.

Peaceful coexistence in the forest

In a natural ecosystem, multiple species coexist. One of the ways in which they can reduce competition is to use the environment differently, a process called niche partitioning. Different species may focus on different food sources, for example, or nest in distinct parts of trees. In the case of bees, niche partitioning would suggest that multiple bee species living in the same area would forage from different flowers. However, bumblebee species have overlapping diets, so how do they avoid intense competition for food resources?

One possible explanation is that the bees select spatial or temporal microhabitats depending on temperature, light and wind conditions based on their physical traits. According to the microhabitat hypothesis, bees could avoid competition by exploiting flower resources at different times of day, for example. There are even some species of bees known to forage at night.

This type of visual niche partitioning is seen in several insect groups, including tropical butterflies, damselflies and fruit flies, and previous research has demonstrated that it is associated with visual traits. As bumblebees mainly use vision to find flowers and control their flights, it is possible that visual niche partitioning could help to explain the coexistence of different species. In this study, a team of researchers tested the hypothesis that bumblebee species demonstrate light-related niche separation and that this separation was related to differences in their visual traits (for example, bees that foraged in dim light had eyes with higher light sensitivity than those that forage in brighter light).

Uncovering what different bee species can see

A Swedish forest in springtime gave them the ideal environment to test their hypothesis, as it offered bumblebees a single food source – bilberry flowers – in a location with varying light levels. The bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a primary food source for multiple bumblebee species. The structure of the forest creates sharp differences in light conditions, which also vary over the course of the day.

The researchers analysed the community composition of bumblebees in the forest, recording light intensity and temperature for each bee observation. They then linked the observations to key physical traits for each species, including body size (which influences thermoregulation and eye size).

The key to exploring whether bumblebee vision affects their foraging patterns lies in the eye parameter, which reflects the trade-off between resolution and light sensitivity associated with compound eyes. Eyes adapted for high resolution have a low eye parameter, while a high value suggests improved light sensitivity and better vision in low light conditions. Previous research has shown a connection between the eye parameter for bumblebee species and their habitat preferences.

At the Diamond-Manchester Imaging Beamline I13-2, the researchers used X-ray micro-CT to scan sample bumblebee eyes, performing volumetric and computational analyses. By scanning at I13-2, the researchers were able to not only rapidly acquire data from many specimens but the images they obtained enabled them to reconstruct 3D volumes of the bee eyes in the high-resolution detail required for their analyses.

As lead author Dr Océane Bartholomée explains:

These visual traits are hard to measure, and using micro-CT at Diamond allowed us to carry out a much deeper study than we would have been able to do if we could only examine more basic traits, such as body size.

Read more on Diamond website

Image: Role of light and temperature on bumblebee community composition

Serpentinization Offers Clues to the Early History of Mars

Studying how water changes iron-rich rocks on Earth can help us understand Mars, habitability, and even the origins of life

Olivines are silicate minerals containing varying proportions of magnesium and iron. Magnesium-rich olivines are common on Earth, being the primary component of the upper mantle. 

Ferromagnesian minerals such as olivines react with water, releasing hydrogen, in a process known as serpentinization. Serpentinites are rocks composed predominantly of one or more serpentine group minerals, and serpentinization has played a significant role in the development of Earth’s surface environments over time. Our current understanding of Mars, pieced together from our examination of meteorites, satellite images and data collected by NASA’s rovers, is that the planet was once warm and wet. However, our understanding of serpentinization on Earth doesn’t directly translate to a Martian context. The olivine minerals found on Mars are much richer in iron; the least iron-rich olivine ever observed in Martian rocks contains more than double the iron of common Earth olivines. As iron-rich olivines are rare on Earth, they have not been the focus of scientific research. In work recently published in Science Advances, researchers from the University of Calgary and the University of Cambridge undertook a detailed study of iron-rich olivines from Minnesota. Their results show that serpentinization reactions could have provided the vital boost needed to stabilise liquid water and promote habitability on early Mars. 

Studying Mars on Earth

The 1.1-billion-year-old Duluth Complex is a large igneous intrusion under much of north-eastern Minnesota, USA. It is part of a large structure known as the Midcontinent Rift, which formed when North America began, but ultimately failed, to split apart. Molten rock from the mantle rose through the rift and cooled to form a complex and heterogeneous body of rock. The olivines found there are iron-rich and similar in composition to Martian olivines, offering a close compositional analog we can study here on Earth. 

Dr Benjamin Tutolo from the University of Calgary said;

There are two fundamental reasons we’re interested in studying serpentinization reactions on early Earth and early Mars. One is that they generate lots of hydrogen, and perhaps through other reactions, hydrocarbons that could then be strung together to make the first cells and biomolecules. Serpentinization might be one of the key reactions for the origins of life on planetary surfaces. A second is that 4.5 billion years ago, the Sun was only about 70% as bright as it is today. That means that more greenhouse gases would have been needed to trap the Sun’s heat and keep a planet warm, and climate simulations of early Mars tell us that carbon dioxide on its own isn’t enough. It needs an extra kick from something, and hydrogen has been proposed as being that extra kick.

Hydrogen can combine with other atmospheric gases to generate a strong greenhouse effect. However, on Earth, serpentinization reactions in magnesium-rich olivines don’t generate the quantities of hydrogen that would be needed. In this work, the researchers investigated whether serpentinization in the iron-rich olivines found on Mars would make a more significant contribution.

Determining the Oxidation State of Iron

At Diamond’s I18 beamline, Dr Tutolo used X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure (XANES) to analyse the Duluth Complex rock samples. He explained;

XANES is useful for iron for two reasons. One is that it gives you redox (oxidation) states, at a scale that’s impossible using any other technique. So we could map the redox state in our samples and get individual spot analyses of the redox state of iron in the rocks. And in so doing, you can also say something about the coordination state of the iron – whether it’s in serpentine, and what kind of serpentine it is. So we could see how iron was partitioning during serpentinization reactions into the oxidized versus reduced state and how it was generating hydrogen.

Microfocus Spectroscopy beamline I18 allowed not only measuring redox state of iron which was important for this study, but also made it possible to measure it in individual mineral grains which could be as small as several micron in size. 

Read more on the Diamond website

New study could help unlock ‘game-changing’ batteries for electric vehicles and aviation

Significantly improved electric vehicle (EV) batteries could be a step closer thanks to a new study led by University of Oxford researchers, published today in Nature. Using advanced imaging techniques, this revealed mechanisms which cause lithium metal solid-state batteries (Li-SSBs) to fail. If these can be overcome, solid-state batteries using lithium metal anodes could deliver a step-change improvement in EV battery range, safety and performance, and help advance electrically powered aviation.

One of the co-lead authors of the study Dominic Melvin, a PhD student in the University of Oxford’s Department of Materials, said:

Progressing solid-state batteries with lithium metal anodes is one of the most important challenges facing the advancement of battery technologies. While lithium-ion batteries of today will continue to improve, research into solid-state batteries has the potential to be high-reward and a gamechanger technology.

Li-SSBs are distinct from other batteries because they replace the flammable liquid electrolyte in conventional batteries with a solid electrolyte and use lithium metal as the anode (negative electrode). The use of the solid electrolyte improves the safety, and the use of lithium metal means more energy can be stored. A critical challenge with Li-SSBs, however, is that they are prone to short circuit when charging due to the growth of ‘dendrites’: filaments of lithium metal that crack through the ceramic electrolyte. As part of the Faraday Institution’s SOLBAT project, which Diamond is a partner, researchers have led a series of in-depth investigations to understand more about how this short-circuiting happens.

In this latest study, the group used an advanced imaging technique called X-ray Computed Tomography (X-ray CT) at the I13-2 beamline of Diamond Light Source to visualise dendrite failure in unprecedented detail during the charging process.

Read more on the Diamond website

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

…. Now we know there are chiral phonons for sure

Findings published in Nature settle the dispute: phonons can be chiral. This fundamental concept, discovered using circular X-ray light, sees phonons twisting like a corkscrew through quartz.

Throughout nature, at all scales, you can find examples of chirality – or handedness. Imagine trying to eat a sandwich with two hands that were not enantiomers – non-superimposable mirror images – of each other. Consider the pharmacological disasters caused by administering the wrong drug enantiomer or, at a subatomic scale, the importance of the concept of parity in particle physics. Now, thanks to a new study led by researchers at PSI, we know that phonons can also possess this property.

A phonon is a quasiparticle that describes the collective vibrational excitations of the atoms in a crystal lattice; imagine it as the Irish Riverdance of the atoms. Physicists have predicted that if phonons can demonstrate chirality they could have important implications on the fundamental physical properties of materials. With the rapid rise in recent years of research into topological materials that exhibit curious electronic and magnetic surface properties, interest in chiral phonons has grown. Yet, experimental proof for their existence has remained elusive.

What makes phonons chiral is the steps of their dance. In the new study, the atomic vibrations dance a twist that moves forwards like a corkscrew. This corkscrew motion is one of the reasons there has been such a drive to discover the phenomenon. If phonons can revolve in this way, like the coil of wire that forms a solenoid, perhaps they could create a magnetic field in a material.  

A new slant on the problem

It is this possibility that motivated the group of Urs Staub at PSI, who led the study. “It is because we are at the juncture between ultrafast X-ray science and materials research that we could approach the problem from a different angle,” he says. The researchers are interested in manipulating chiral modes of materials using chiral light – light that is circularly polarised.

It was using such light that the researchers could make their proof. Using quartz, one of the best-known minerals whose atoms – silicon and oxygen – form a chiral structure, they showed how circularly polarised light coupled to chiral phonons. To do this, they used a technique known as resonant inelastic X-ray scattering (RIXS) at the Diamond Light Source in the UK. This was complemented with supporting theoretical descriptions of how the process would create and enable the detection of chiral phonons from groups at the ETH Zurich (Carl Romao and Nicola Spaldin) and MPI Dresden (Jeroen van den Brink).

Read more on the PSI website

Image: To prove the existence of chiral phonons, researchers used resonant inelastic X-rays scattering (RIXS). Circularly polarised light shines on quartz. The angular momentum of the photons is transferred to a crystal, causing a revolution in this case of anions (orange spheres with p orbitals) relative to their neighbouring cations (green spheres).

Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute / Hiroki Ueda and Mahir Dzambegovic

Understanding How the Structure of Boron Oxynitride Affects its Photocatalytic Properties

Synchrotron studies show that tuning the synthesis of boron oxynitride can improve its performance as a photocatalyst and semiconductor

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is often in the news these days. As a greenhouse gas, released during the combustion of fossil fuels, it is fuelling climate change, and reducing our CO2 emissions is critical to a sustainable future. CO2 is also a by-product of many industrial processes, including the production of ammonia used for fertilisers. On the other hand, many industries need a regular supply of CO2, and shortages have caused problems in recent years. It makes sense, therefore, to find ways to recycle some of the waste CO2 we produce into useful products. However, CO2 conversion reactions are energy-intensive, and new catalysts are needed to make the reactions more efficient. Photocatalysts absorb light energy, creating a charge separation that can then drive a chemical reaction. A team of researchers from Imperial College London are researching CO2 conversion using photocatalysis. In work recently published in Chemistry of Materials, they investigated how oxygen doping affects the photocatalytic and optoelectronic properties of boron nitride. Their results provide valuable insights into the photochemistry of boron oxynitride (BNO) at the fundamental level.

By clarifying the importance of paramagnetism in BNO semiconductors and providing fundamental insight into their photophysics, this study paves the way to tailoring its properties for CO2 conversion photocatalysis. The group has also recently used a similar methodology to investigate phosphorus doping of boron nitride, which they will explore in a future publication. 

Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Combined experimental (EPR, NEXAFS) + computational study (DFT)

Credit: Image via Chem. Mater. 2023, 35, 5, 1858-1867

Micro-CT can take us back in time to the dawn of jaws

Synchrotron studies show fine details on the jaw of one of the earliest jawed vertebrates

Acanthothoracids are generally considered to be the most primitive placoderms, an ancient group of armoured fish that first appeared during the early Silurian period, approximately 440 million years ago, and went extinct during the Late Devonian, about 360 million years ago. Placoderms were among the earliest jawed vertebrates, and many features of their anatomy can still be seen in modern fish and other animals. During this period, the skeletons of many animals were comprised of cartilage, which doesn’t preserve as well as bone. As a result, our understanding of placoderms is largely gleaned from small pieces of incomplete skeletons. The structure of their jaws and jaw hinges is poorly understood. In work recently published in Royal Society Open Science, an international team of researchers used X-ray micro-computed tomography to examine a near-complete acanthothoracid upper jaw discovered in western Mongolia. Their results suggest jaw morphology was phylogenetically conserved across most placoderms, and bring a step closer to understanding the origin and evolution of jaws and teeth in vertebrates.

A Well-Preserved Jaw

More than 99% of living vertebrate species, including ourselves, are jawed vertebrates (gnathostomes). However, how and when jaws and teeth evolved remains a contentious issue. Studying the jaws of placoderms, and comparing them to other early jawed fishes, offers some clues as to what their ancestors – and, by extension, our ancestors – would have looked like. The discovery of a near-complete acanthothoracid upper jaw is therefore a significant find. Studying it, though, presents a challenge.

Dr Martin Brazeau from Imperial College, London explains,

Some of the oldest jawed fish fossils come from this particular location in Mongolia. We found a bed of rock there that is full of pieces of fish fossils. But there’s a problem with the way that they’re preserved. Normally a palaeontologist will either chip away the surrounding rock to expose a fossil, or etch out the bone to leave an impression, from which it’s possible to make a rubber peel. Unfortunately, neither of those techniques is very successful at this site.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Upper jaw complex in virtual three-dimensional rendering from synchrotron tomography

New studies towards lignin valorisation

A little known, yet ubiquitous polymer

In work recently published in PNAS an international team of researchers characterised an important degradation step, allowing the breakage of lignin that leads to the production of individual components, which can be further harvested. To do so, they utilise several Diamond Light Source instruments:  the I23, I03 and B21 beamlines.

Compared to animals, plants don’t have a bony skeleton. They rely on rigid cell walls that separate each plant cell. These cell walls are composed of cellulose, pectin and lignin, making these molecules among the most abundant on earth. Lignin is a hydrophobic compound and plays a crucial role in vascular tissue, making them impermeable and allowing the transport of water in the plant efficiently. Lignin is a huge and complex molecule composed of different precursors called monolignols. The composition of lignin varies among plants.

From an industrial perspective, lignin is well known in the paper industry because it represents a third of the mass of the paper precursor. Lignin is a coloured component that yellows in the air and needs to be removed to have white paper. Currently there is only limited use for lignin and it is burned as low value fuel in these industries. New research and development have improved the transformation of lignin into value added components (biofuels, chemical compounds…) but research is still needed to improve the degradation process of lignin. A way to harvest these components is through enzymatic degradation. In work recently published in PNAS an international team of researchers characterised an important degradation step, allowing the breakage of lignin that leads to the production of individual components, which can be further harvested. To do so, they utilise several Diamond Light Source instruments:  the I23, I03 and B21 beamlines.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Structural architecture of LdpA and substrate interactions. (A) Superposition of SpLdpA (magenta) with NaLdpA (teal). (B) Side view of the SpLdpA trimer. Two protein chains are shown as surfaces (yellow and green) and one protein chain is shown in cartoon mode (red) with bound substrate erythro-DGPD (light blue). (C) Top view of the SpLdpA trimer. (D) Pseudo-stereoscopic view of the interaction of SpLdpA with the erythro-DGPD enantiomers (αS, βR) (Left) and (αR, βS) (Right). When viewed in stereo, alternating eye switching results in an optimal impression of the binding modes of the two diastereomer substrates. (E) Omit electron density map for the (αS, βR)- and (αR, βS)-erythro-DGPD enantiomers bound to SpLdpA at 2.5 σ level. (see Diamond news piece for complete image)

Diamond launches major recruitment campaign at AAAS

Coinciding with Women’s History Month, and in the lead up to International Women’s Day, four of Diamond’s STEM champions launch a new recruitment drive

Today, at the prestigious AAAS science conference in Washington DC, Diamond will unveil plans for its biggest recruitment campaign since its inception 20 years ago. Dozens of new roles will be available in the coming year and some examples of the variety of STEM careers will be showcased and celebrated by an all-women lineup from the Diamond team. This recruitment drive aims to ensure the facility has the knowledge and expertise required to help plan and deliver world leading science for the next decade and beyond.

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day (8th March), Diamond’s workshop will shine a light on career pathways in world-changing science. A panel of four women from Diamond will address how their work across science and engineering helps to address 21st century challenges from energy research to pandemic preparedness.  They will share their professional journeys and insights into their roles. Job roles range from scientists, engineers, software experts, technicians to professional roles all essential to enabling the most brilliant science performed by scientists at Diamond. 

Through part of the next decade, Diamond will deliver an upgrade programme called Diamond-II. To continue delivering the world-changing science that Diamond leads and enables, Diamond-II is a project that will deliver a new machine and new beamlines with a comprehensive series of upgrades to optics, detectors, sample environments, sample delivery capabilities and computing. 

Details on the panel:

The workshop panel will feature Dr Lorraine Bobb – Head of Diagnostics Group; Sarah Macdonell – Head of Beamline Systems Engineering; Dr Chidinma Okolo – Beamline Scientist at B24 and Dr Lucy Saunders – Beamline Scientist at I11. It will be chaired by Isabelle Boscaro-Clarke – Head of Impact, Communications and Engagement, with an interactive Q&A session facilitated by Molly Pekarik Fry – Web and Digital Content Manager.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: L to R the Diamond Light Source Panel : Dr Chidinma Okolo – Beamline Scientist at B24; Molly Pekarik Fry – Web and Digital Content Manager, Sarah Macdonell – Head of Beamline Systems Engineering; Isabelle Boscaro-Clarke – Head of Impact, Communications and Engagement; Dr Lorraine Bobb – Head of Diagnostics Group; Dr Lucy Saunders – Beamline Scientist at I11

RIXS Shows Flat-Band Stoner Excitations in a Kagome Semimetal

A sensitive synchrotron technique uncovers exotic behaviour important to next-gen electronics

Topological materials (including topological insulators, Dirac and Weyl semimetals and skyrmions) are a hot topic in science at the moment. A gold rush of sorts is underway, to discover and investigate the exotic physical properties of these materials, which could be the key that unlocks next-generation energy-efficient electronic devices and quantum computing. In some materials, geometrical confinement of electrons can give rise to electronic correlations that manifest as dispersionless ‘flat’ bands. These flat bands are of particular interest, as they can result in unconventional ferromagnetic and transport behaviour. However, there have been few characterisations of flat bands and their magnetism. In work recently published in Nature Communications, scientists from Diamond’s I21 beamline used resonant inelastic X-ray scattering (RIXS) to investigate the ferromagnetic Kagome semimetal Co3Sn2S2, reporting the first observation of flat-band Stoner excitations in this material. Their results also demonstrate that RIXS can clarify the magnon-Stoner interactions in itinerant correlated flat band systems. 

ExPaNDS webinar series to showcase achievements and look to the future

We’re pleased to announce our upcoming topic-based webinars which will take place during the coming month before the end of our grant in February 2023. The webinar topics have been selected with the help of our work package leaders and some of the highlighted use cases taken directly from the PaN community throughout our grant.

The series will provide a great opportunity to showcase some of the outcomes of our grant to the PaN facility user communities. We will present some key findings from the recently conducted data consultation, which was sent to over 14,000 PaN facility users.

The ongoing work of ExPaNDS has been very important to the PaN community and we have invited senior community figures to discuss the future needs and requirements for their respective discipline or technique to keep the momentum going beyond the grant.

We will have flash talks from our work packages with focus being on FAIR, data catalogue services, data analysis and an overview of the PaN training platform.

Read more on the ExPaNDS website

Image: Chairman of the DESY Board of Directors – Professor Dr Helmut Dosch

Ancient asteroid grains provide insight into the evolution of our solar system

The UK’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source, was used by a large, international collaboration to study grains collected from a near-Earth asteroid to further our understanding of the evolution of our solar system.

Researchers from the University of Leicester brought a fragment of the Ryugu asteroid to Diamond’s Nanoprobe beamline I14 where a special technique called X-ray Absorption Near Edge Spectroscopy (XANES) was used to map out the chemical states of the elements within the asteroid material, to examine its composition in fine detail. The team also studied the asteroid grains using an electron microscope at Diamond’s electron Physical Science Imaging Centre (ePSIC).

Julia Parker is the Principal Beamline Scientist for I14 at Diamond. She said:

The X-ray Nanoprobe allows scientists to examine the chemical structure of their samples at micron to nano lengthscales, which is complemented by the nano to atomic resolution of the imaging at ePSIC. It’s very exciting to be able to contribute to the understanding of these unique samples, and to work with the team at Leicester to demonstrate how the techniques at the beamline, and correlatively at ePSIC, can benefit future sample return missions.

The data collected at Diamond contributed to a wider study of the space weathering signatures on the asteroid. The pristine asteroid samples enabled the collaborators to explore how space weathering can alter the physical and chemical composition of the surface of carbonaceous asteroids like Ryugu.

The researchers discovered that the surface of Ryugu is dehydrated and that it is likely that space weathering is responsible. The findings of the study, published today in Nature Astronomy, have led the authors to conclude that asteroids that appear dry on the surface may be water-rich, potentially requiring revision of our understanding of the abundances of asteroid types and the formation history of the asteroid belt.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Image taken at E01 ePSIC of Ryugu serpentine and Fe oxide minerals.

Credit: ePSIC/University of Leicester.