Synchrotron techniques allow geologists to study the surface of Mars

State-of-the-art imaging uncovers the exciting life history of an unusual Mars meteorite

With human and sample-return missions to Mars still on the drawing board, geologists wishing to study the red planet rely on robotic helpers to collect and analyse samples. Earlier this year we said goodbye to NASA’s Opportunity rover, but Insight landed in November 2018, and several space agencies have Mars rover missions on their books for the next few years. But while we’re working on ways to bring samples back from Mars, geologists can study Martian meteorites that have been delivered to us by the forces at play in the Solar System. Earth is bombarded by tonnes of extraterrestrial material every day. Most of it comes from Jupiter Family Comets and the asteroid belt, and much of it burns up in the atmosphere or lands in the oceans, but meteorites from the Moon and Mars do make it to Earth’s surface. In research published in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, scientists used a battery of synchrotron techniques to investigate a very unusual Martian meteorite, whose eventful life story offers some insights to the geological history of Mars.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: BSE image with locations for XANES/XRD and XRF map.

Understanding the viruses that kill cancer cells

Taking inspiration from virology to find better treatments for cancer

There are some viruses, called oncolytic viruses, that can be trained to target and kill cancer cells. Scientists in the field of oncolytics want to engineer these viruses to make them safer and more effective so they can be used to treat more people and different types of cancers. To achieve this, they first have to fully understand at the molecular level all the different ways that the virus has evolved to infect healthy cells and cause disease. A research team from Cardiff University set out to better understand how a protein on the surface of a virus often used to kill cancer, called an adenovirus, binds to human cells to cause an infection. Using X-ray crystallography, the team was able to determine the structure of one the key adenovirus proteins. Using this information and after extensive computational analysis, the research team realised the virus was not binding the receptor on the cells that was originally thought. This has important implications for the development of new virotherapies and engineering of viruses to treat cancer. The more thoroughly the researchers can understand how the adenoviruses interact with cancer cells at the molecular level, the more safe and effective treatments can be brought to clinical trial in the future.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Imaging dendrite growth in zinc-air batteries

SXCT captures unprecedented detail of dendrite formation, growth and dissolution

Modern life runs on rechargeable batteries, which power all of our mobile devices and are increasingly used to power vehicles and to store energy from renewable sources. We are approaching the limits of lithium-ion battery technology in terms of maximum energy capacity, and new technologies will be needed to develop higher capacity rechargeable batteries for the future. One class of promising candidates is metal-air batteries, in particular zinc-air batteries that have a high theoretical energy density and low estimated production costs. However, zinc-air batteries present certain challenges, in key areas such as cycle life, reversibility and power density. The formation of metal dendrites as the battery charges is a common cause of failure, as dendrites can cause internal short circuits and even thermal runaway. (Thermal runaway is a sequence of exothermic reactions that take place within the battery, leading to overheating and potentially resulting in fire or an explosion. It is also a problem in lithium-ion batteries, and the subject of ongoing research.) In work recently published in Joule, a team of researchers from Imperial College, London, University College London, the University of Manchester and the Research Complex at Harwell carried out in situ experiments investigating how dendritic growth can cause irreversible capacity loss, battery degradation and eventually failure.
>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: (extract, see full image here) Single dendrite and dendritic deposits inside and on top of the separator (FIB-SEM)

Funding research crucial to Africa: Energy and healthcare

The 27th March 2019 saw the official launch of START (Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology), a £3.7M grant awarded to a consortium of researchers led by Diamond Light Source by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to work with African scientists on START.

Africa does not yet have a synchrotron light source, but African researchers are keen to apply synchrotron techniques to their research problems. The START project will fund research posts in Africa and the UK with a focus on two key areas crucial to development in Africa – energy and healthcare . The scientific results that come out of the project will be valuable in themselves, and may also lead to commercial applications, but START will also promote the development of research capabilities within Africa, and international research collaborations.

For Diamond Principal Investigator, Prof. Chris Nicklin, this will be the most important result: It is an exciting prospect to work together on these challenging problems and this funding will enable us to form very strong links at all levels, in particular helping to train the next generation of researchers in nations that have not had the chance to access and exploit synchrotron based techniques in their research. The work will focus around the development needs of African countries, driven by the Africa-based investigators and the non-government organisations (NGOs) that we have on board.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

X-ray fluorescence sheds light on the growth patterns of extinct hyaena

A novel synchrotron technique examines growth patterns in fossil bones

Until recently, it was thought that warm-blooded animals experienced uninterrupted high rates of growth, whilst cold-blooded animals showed zonal growth – alternating periods of fast and slow growth. The identification of zonal growth in a range of mammals and birds disproved that theory, but as yet we don’t know how widespread zonal growth is in vertebrates, or which factors affect the speed of bone growth. Conventional techniques lack the resolution to correlate variations in bone chemistry with histological features, but in work recently published in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, an international team of researchers carried out the first direct comparison between optical histology (bone tissue identification) and synchrotron-based chemical mapping, quantification, and characterisation of trace elements (biochemistry) within cyclic growth tissues, and reported the first case of zonal tissue within the Hyaenidae.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Lead author Jennifer Anné with a spotted hyaena mount.

A step closer to early detection of multiple sclerosis

Synchrotron techniques identify the critical conditions that alter myelin structure

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease resulting in the destruction of myelin, a fatty substance that insulates nerves and increases the speed at which signals travel between nerve cells. MS affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide and has no cure. In work recently published in PNAS, a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology mapped, for the first time, the delicate and complicated force balance between the myelin sheath constituents, and their effect on the myelin structure. This new information will allow the identification of critical components involved in neurodegenerative diseases such as MS.

First ever images of fuel debris fallout particles from Fukushima

Unique synchrotron visualisation techniques offer new forensic insights into the provenance of radioactive material from the Fukushima nuclear accident to understand the sequence of events related to the accident.

In April 2017, a joint team comprising the University of Bristol, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) and Diamond, the UK’s national synchrotronlight source, undertook the first experiment of its kind to be performed at Diamond.  A small radioactive particle (450μm x 280μm x 250 μm) from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011 underwent a comprehensive and independent analysis of its internal structure and 3D elemental distribution, to establish the source of the material and the potential environmental risks associated with it.  

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Fukushima Particles research group (L-R): Cristoph Rau (I13), Yukihiko Satou, (researcher from the Collaborative Laboratories for Advanced Decommissioning Science, Japan Atomic Energy Agency), with Tom Scott and Peter Martin (University of Bristol).

Structural insights into tiny bacterial harpoons

Bacteria produce complex nano-harpoons on their cell surface. One of their functions is to harpoon and inject toxins into cells that are close by. Producing such a complex weapon requires lots of different moving components that scientists are still trying to understand. Researchers from the University of Sheffield have been using some of Diamond’s crystallography beamlines to understand a particularly enigmatic piece of this tiny puzzle. The team led by David Rice and Mark Thomas worked on a protein component of the harpoon called TssA which they already knew was an integral piece of the machinery. However, unlike the other components of the harpoon, there are distinct variants of the TssA protein that contain radically different amino acid sequences at one end of the protein. The team showed that the structures of the variable region of two different TssA subunits were completely unrelated and they could assemble into distinctly different multisubunit complexes in terms of their size and geometry. This begged the question as to how different bacteria could use this protein with different structures to produce a harpoon with the same function across all species. They found that despite these differences, there was a very specific conserved region at the other end of the protein. They hypothesise that the conserved region is the part that does the work and helps the harpoon to function whereas the variable region acts as a scaffold. They used I02, I03 and I24 in their study and plan to do follow up work using X-ray crystallography and Cryo-EM such as those at the eBIC centre at Diamond. The research was published in Nature Communications.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Macromolecular Crystallography (MX) at Diamond reveals the shape and arrangement of biological molecules at atomic resolution, knowledge of which provides a highly accurate insight into function. 

A timely solution for the photosynthetic oxygen evolving clock

XFEL Hub collaboration reveals the intermediates of the photosynthetic water oxidation clock

A large international collaborative effort aided by the XFEL Hub at Diamond Light Source has generated the most detailed time-resolved studies to date of a key protein involved in photosynthesis. The pioneering work, recently published in Nature, shows how photosystem II harnesses light energy to produce oxygen – insights that could direct a next generation of photovoltaic cells. 
>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: this figure is issued from a video you can watch here.

Saving Rembrandt for future generations

New research on beamline I18 at Diamond Light Source investigates preservation techniques for Old Master paintings.

The surface of many Old Master paintings has been affected by the appearance of whitish lead-rich deposits, which are often difficult to fully characterise, thereby hindering conservation. Painted in 1663, Rembrandt’s Homer is an incredibly valuable and much-loved painting. Like many Old Masters it has a long and eventful past, which has taken its toll on the painting’s chemistry. The test of time and environmental factors, combined with the painting’s history, caused a barely visible, whitish crust to form on the surface of the painting. This crust indicates that chemical reactions are occurring which could potentially pose as risk for Homer and other old paintings if not kept in stable museum conditions.
A paper in ChemComm (Royal Society of Chemistry) has been published by a team of conservation scientists from the Mauritshuis in the Hague and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam and scientists from Finden Ltd, UCL and Diamond Light Source, the UK’s National Synchrotron. Called “Unravelling the spatial dependency of the complex solid-state chemistry of Pb in a paint micro-sample from Rembrandt’s Homer using XRD-CT,” this paper is particularly timely given the celebrations occurring in 2019 to mark 350 years since the death of Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age. A paint micro-sample from Rembrandt’s Homer was imaged using X-ray Diffraction Computed Tomography (XRD-CT) in order to understand the evolving solid-state Pb chemistry from the painting surface and beneath.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Stephen Price, Lead author from Diamond Light Source and Finden Ltd.

Injecting relativity into Engineering

When you think about the theory of relativity, physics might be the first thing you think about.

But here at Diamond Light Source, our unique facility and state of the art instrument means that even our engineering teams must keep relativity in mind. In our last Year of Engineering spotlight piece, learn more about the unique engineering opportunities that present themselves when working at a synchrotron.
There are many areas where science and engineering work together, but relativity rarely makes an appearance. Most of our daily challenges can be solved by using simpler classical mechanics, where we (correctly) assume that objects travel at speeds which are a minute fraction of the speed of light, and weigh many times less than planets or stars. However, two engineering applications used every day at Diamond involve conditions which breach those assumptions, and so they must enter the strange world of relativity.
If you mention Einstein’s theory of relativity to a physicist, they will tell you how it provides a more accurate solution to any classical mechanics problem – but often with a lot more work involved! Inside Diamond’s linac and booster accelerators, the presence of relativistic effects instead allows for some clever engineering solutions which simplify the difficult task of controlling the movement of five billion electrons.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: The linac, with the gun at the far end and the accelerating structures coming towards us. The electrons are already more than 0.95 times the speed of light by the time they emerge from the copper rings at the back.

Secrets of the deadly white-tail virus revealed

The inner workings of a lethal giant freshwater prawn virus have been revealed by an international team of researchers using data gathered at Diamond Light Source. The results reveal a possible new class of virus and presents the prospect of tackling a disease that can devastate prawn farms around the world.

The detailed structure of a virus that can devastate valuable freshwater prawn fisheries has been revealed by an international team using image data collected in the Electron Bio-Imaging Centre (eBIC) based at Diamond Light Source. The researchers produced high-resolution images of virus like particles, VLP’s, composed of virus shell proteins which they compared with lower resolution images of the complete virus purified from prawn larvae. They found strong similarities between the two suggesting that the more detailed VLP images are a good representation of the intact virus. This research, exposing the inner workings of the MrNV, could make it easier to develop ways of combating the economically important disease, but also suggests that it belongs in a new, separate, group of nodaviruses.
The researchers used the rapidly developing technique of cryo-electron microscopy, cryoEM, which has the ability to produce very high-resolution images of frozen virus particles. Images so detailed that the positions of individual atoms could be inferred. Recent breakthroughs in this technique have transformed the study of relatively large biological complexes like viruses allowing researchers to determine their structures comparatively quickly. The data to produce the MrNV structure described here was captured in two days at the eBIC facility.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: 3D model of the MrNV
Credit: Dr David Bhella

First users on VMXm

First users from the University of Southampton investigated proteins involved in nutrient uptake of photosynthetic or cyanobacteria to understand how these phytoplankton thrive under scarce nutrient conditions.

The work has immense global significance for biofuels production and biotechnology. This beamline marks the completion of Diamond’s original Phase III funding on time and within budget.

First users have now been welcomed by Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron light source on its new VMXm beamline. The Versatile Macromolecular Crystallography micro/nanofocus (VMXm) beamline becomes the 32nd operational beamline to open its doors to users, completing the portfolio of seven beamlines dedicated to macromolecular crystallography.
The unique VMXm beamline represents a significant landmark for Diamond. It is a specialist tuneable micro/nanofocus macromolecular crystallography (MX) beamline, with an X-ray beam size of less than 0.5 microns, allowing even the tiniest of samples to be analysed. Integrated into the ‘in vacuum’ sample environment is a scanning electron microscope, making VMXm a hybrid X-ray/cryoEM instrument for detecting and measuring data from nanocrystals. VMXm is aimed at research applications where the production of significant quantities of protein and crystals is difficult.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Principal Beamline Scientist Dr Gwyndaf Evans with his team Dr Jose Trincao, Dr Anna Warren, Dr Emma Beale and Dr Adam Crawshaw. First users – Dr Ivo Tews from Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton and joint Diamond-Southampton PhD student Rachel Bolton investigating proteins involved in nutrient uptake of photosynthetic or cyanobacteria.

Insights into an antibody directed against dengue virus

We are one step further to uncovering a new way to stave off dengue fever thanks to important work carried out at the I02 beamline at Diamond Light Source.

The study, recently published in Nature Immunology, describes how an antibody effectively targets the dengue virus.
Dengue virus affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide and is an untreatable infection. Secondary infections with dengue can lead to a life-threatening form of the disease due to a phenomenon called antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE). Additionally, efforts to develop a vaccine against the virus have been hindered by ADE.

A huge collaborative effort sought to investigate ADE in dengue, and two antibodies were characterised that bound to the envelope protein of the dengue virus. One of the antibodies was found to be a potent neutraliser of the virus, but importantly was unable to promote ADE.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Fab binding in the context of the mature virion. e, Comparison of 2C8 Fab and 3H5 Fab docked onto a E dimer. 2C8 (green) and 3H5 (orange) Fabs were docked onto PDB ID 3J27 by aligning the EDIII potion of the structures. The Fabs are shown as surfaces and the E dimer is displayed in cartoon representation. A side view is of the E dimer on the viral surface is shown. The approximate location of the viral membrane is shown schematically.

 

A guide to central nervous system tomography

In-depth investigations on I13 to optimise soft tissue synchrotron X-ray microtomography

The Bradbury Lab at King’s College London, headed by Professor Elizabeth Bradbury, investigates damage to the central nervous system (CNS), and how the body responds to it. The traditional way of investigating soft tissue samples such as those of the central nervous system is 2D histology, in which slices are taken, stained and imaged. However, this process has limitations – slice thickness has a lower limit and measurements within cut slices are subject to inaccuracies arising from mechanical processing distortions. The group sent PhD student (now Dr) Merrick Strotton to the Diamond-Manchester Imaging Branchline I13-2 to investigate whether X-ray microtomography (a nominally non-destructive technique for taking a series of 2D images and turning them into a 3D volume) could avoid these issues. It wasn’t clear how to achieve the best possible results, and so alongside the biomedical studies, Dr Strotton worked with Diamond’s Dr Andrew Bodey on a series of methodological investigations on how to optimise imaging for soft tissue samples, the first results of which have recently been published in Scientific Reports.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Segmentation of the low thoracic-high lumbar (T13-L1) level spinal cord sample from background, white & grey matter from spinal cord and vasculature from spinal cord with SuRVoS.
Credit: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-30520-8#Sec10