Targeting a parasite’s DNA could be more effective way to treat malaria

Research from the University of Sheffield using Diamond has explored a new way of killing the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria. 

According to the World Health Organisation, there were 241 million cases of malaria and 627,000 deaths worldwide in 2020 – making the study and treatment of this disease a high-priority issue for scientists around the world. In a feasibility study, researchers from the University of Sheffield used Diamond to reveal a novel way of fighting the life-threatening disease, malaria. The study discovered molecules that interfered with the parasite’s DNA processing enzyme, but not the equivalent human one. 

A research team from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease examined and targeted an enzyme that maintains the classic double-helical structure of the malaria parasite’s DNA, which contains the blueprint of life, which could be a more effective way to combat malaria.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: A flap endonuclease cuts DNA (the orange intertwined worms), credit University of Sheffield

A new leap in understanding nickel oxide superconductors

Researchers discover they contain a phase of quantum matter, known as charge density waves, that’s common in other unconventional superconductors. In other ways, though, they’re surprisingly unique.

BY GLENNDA CHUI

A new study shows that nickel oxide superconductors, which conduct electricity with no loss at higher temperatures than conventional superconductors do, contain a type of quantum matter called charge density waves, or CDWs, that can accompany superconductivity.

The presence of CDWs shows that these recently discovered materials, also known as nickelates, are capable of forming correlated states – “electron soups” that can host a variety of quantum phases, including superconductivity, researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University reported in Nature Physics today.

“Unlike in any other superconductor we know about, CDWs appear even before we dope the material by replacing some atoms with others to change the number of electrons that are free to move around,” said Wei-Sheng Lee, a SLAC lead scientist and  investigator with the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Science (SIMES) who led the study.

“This makes the nickelates a very interesting new system – a new playground for studying unconventional superconductors.”

Nickelates and cuprates

In the 35 years since the first unconventional “high-temperature” superconductors were discovered, researchers have been racing to find one that could carry electricity with no loss at close to room temperature. This would be a revolutionary development, allowing things like perfectly efficient power lines, maglev trains and a host of other futuristic, energy-saving technologies.

But while a vigorous global research effort has pinned down many aspects of their nature and behavior, people still don’t know exactly how these materials become superconducting.

So the discovery of nickelate’s superconducting powers by SIMES investigators three years ago was exciting because it gave scientists a fresh perspective on the problem. 

Since then, SIMES researchers have explored the nickelates’ electronic structure – basically the way their electrons behave – and magnetic behavior. These studies turned up important similarities and subtle differences between nickelates and the copper oxides or cuprates – the first high-temperature superconductors ever discovered and still the world record holders for high-temperature operation at everyday pressures.

Since nickel and copper sit right next to each other on the periodic table of the elements, scientists were not surprised to see a kinship there, and in fact had suspected that nickelates might make good superconductors. But it turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to construct materials with just the right characteristics.

“This is still very new,” Lee said. “People are still struggling to synthesize thin films of these materials and understand how different conditions can affect the underlying microscopic mechanisms related to superconductivity.”

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: An illustration shows a type of quantum matter called charge density waves, or CDWs, superimposed on the atomic structure of a nickel oxide superconductor. (Bottom) The nickel oxide material, with nickel atoms in orange and oxygen atoms in red. (Top left) CDWs appear as a pattern of frozen electron ripples, with a higher density of electrons in the peaks of the ripples and a lower density of electrons in the troughs. (Top right) This area depicts another quantum state, superconductivity, which can also emerge in the nickel oxide. The presence of CDWs shows that nickel oxides are capable of forming correlated states – “electron soups” that can host a variety of quantum phases, including superconductivity.

Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Antibody rigidity regulates immune activity

Scientists at the University of Southampton have gained unprecedented new insight into the key properties of an antibody needed to stimulate immune activity to fight off cancer, using the ESRF’s structural biology beamlines, among others.

The interdisciplinary study, published in Science Immunology, revealed how changing the flexibility of the antibody could stimulate a stronger immune response. The findings have enabled the team to design antibodies to activate important receptors on immune cells to “fire them up” and deliver more powerful anti-cancer effects. The researchers believe their findings could pave the way to improve antibody drugs that target cancer, as well as automimmune diseases.

In the study, the team investigated antibody drugs targeting the receptor CD40 for cancer treatment. Clinical development has been hampered by a lack of understanding of how to stimulate the receptors to the right level. The problem being that if antibodies are too active they can become toxic. Previous research by the same team had shown that a specific type of antibody called IgG2 is uniquely suited as a template for pharmaceutical intervention, since it is more active than other antibody types. However, the reason why it is more active had not been determined. What was known, however, is that the structure between the antibody arms, the so called hinges, changes over time.

This latest research harnesses this property of the hinge and explains how it works: the researchers call this process “disulfide-switching”. In their study, the team analysed the effect of modifying the hinge and used a combination of biological activity assays, structural biology, and computational chemistry to study how disulfide switching alters antibody structure and activity.

Read more on the ESRF website

Image: Flexibility of the monoclonal antibody F(ab) arms is conferred by the hinge region disulphide structure

Credit: C. Orr

New Director for massive upgrade into Diamond-II

To cement its position as a world-leading research facility, Diamond Light Source recently revealed plans for a large upgrade called Diamond-II and that is set to strengthen the UK’s global scientific leadership. This will be a transformational upgrade that will enable a huge expansion of UK science capabilities as it involves a coordinated programme of development combining state-of-the-art technology in a new machine, five new flagship beamlines and a comprehensive series of upgrades to its Instruments.

To lead this programme, Diamond has appointed Rob Walden, a Chartered Engineer with over 20 years’ experience in delivering business and process improvement programmes in the aerospace manufacturing engineering industry. This was followed by several years as a senior projects advisor in central government where he was involved in, and delivered, nationwide policy projects as well as helping to develop the programme delivery framework for government. Rob was also part of the Cabinet Office’s Gateway Assurance review team and conducted a number of forensic assurance delivery reviews for programmes of national interest. Additionally, he helped to set up the national programme office structure for Highways England and ran two busy Project Management Offices.

Rob joined Diamond Light Source from Sellafield Ltd where he focused on raising the standards of the programme delivery framework, which included the appointment and development of the SRO (Senior Responsible Officer) function for major projects of national interest. Rob comments:

For over 15 years Diamond has been a leading centre for synchrotron science on the world stage, supporting UK business and academia to undertake cutting-edge research in a diverse set of areas and sectors. I am delighted to join a team of such esteemed colleagues as we move into the next chapter in Diamond’s life, the detailed planning of the delivery of Diamond-II to secure long-term funding, pushing the boundaries of scientific research even further and keeping the UK at the forefront of scientific research.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Rob Walden, programme director for Diamond-II

Credit: Diamond Light Source

Extending the longevity of perovskite solar cells for cheaper solar energy

Study reveals the secret to treating the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of alternatives to silicon solar panels for the photovoltaics industry

Diamond’s Nanoprobe beamline I14 and the electron Physical Science Imaging Centre (ePSIC) were used by a multidisciplinary team of researchers to gain new insight into the perovskite materials that hold so much potential in the field of optoelectronics. Focusing on structural changes that can lead to degradation, the Diamond instruments were part of a suite that enabled the group to observe the nanoscale properties of thin films of perovskite materials and how they change over time under solar illumination. The research, recently published in Nature, could significantly accelerate the development of long-lasting, commercially available perovskite photovoltaics.  

Perovskite materials offer a cheaper alternative to silicon for producing solar cells and also show great potential for other optoelectronic applications, such as energy efficient LEDs and X-ray detectors.

The metal halide salts are abundant and much cheaper to process than crystalline silicon. They can be prepared in a liquid ink that is simply printed to produce a thin film of the material.

While the overall energy output of perovskite solar cells can often meet or – in the case of multi-layered, so-called ‘tandem’ devices – exceed that achievable with traditional silicon photovoltaics, the limited longevity of the devices is a key barrier to their commercial viability.

A typical silicon solar panel, like those you might see on the roof of a house, typically lasts about 20-25 years without significant performance losses.

Because perovskite devices are much cheaper to produce, they may not need to have as long a lifetime as their silicon counterparts at least to enter some markets – but to fulfil their ultimate potential in realising widespread decarbonisation, cells will need to operate for at least a decade or more. Researchers and manufacturers have yet to develop a device with similar stability to silicon cells.

Now, researchers at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology (CEB) and Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, together with the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) in Japan, have discovered that the defects that limit perovskite efficiency are also responsible for structural changes in the material that lead to degradation.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: A typical silicon solar panel, like those you might see on the roof of a house, typically lasts about 20-25 years without significant performance losses

#SynchroLightAt75 campaign launches on International Day of Light

The SRS at Daresbury Laboratory in the UK was the world’s first dedicated synchrotron light source facility. It opened in 1980 and delivered worldwide impact and two Nobel Prizes.

The first of its kind, the SRS enabled research that has improved the quality of our lives in so many ways. This included research into diseases such as HIV and AIDS, as well as motor neurone disease, to name just a few examples. The structure of the Foot & Mouth virus was solved for the first time at the SRS – it was the first animal virus structure to be determined in Europe and led to the development of a vaccine. The huge magnetic memory of the Apple iPod was also the result of research carried out on the SRS. However, its most famous achievement was the key role it played towards a share of two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry.  One to Sir John Walker in 1997, for solving a structure of an enzyme that opened the way for new insights into metabolic diseases, and the other to Sir Venki Ramakrishnan in 2009, for his work on the structure and function of the Ribosome, the particle responsible for protein synthesis in living cells.

During its lifetime, the SRS created a critical mass of highly skilled engineers and technicians at Daresbury Laboratory, with specialisms ranging from detectors to magnets and electronics, and by the time it closed in 2008, it had collaborated with almost every country active in scientific research. It had hosted over 11,000 users from academia, government laboratories and industry worldwide, leading to the publication of more than 5000 research papers, resulting in numerous patents. The economic impact of this was vast on a worldwide scale, but it also played an important role in boosting the regional economy of the North West, having worked with hundreds of local businesses.

The success of the SRS led to the development of many similar machines around the world, with the technologies and skills developed still in use at many facilities today, including its UK successor, the Diamond Light Source at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire. It also led to the establishment of ASTeC, a leading centre for accelerator science and technology at Daresbury Laboratory, and the Cockcroft Institute, a joint venture between STFC and the Universities of Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester and Strathclyde. It is also home to CLARA, a unique particle accelerator designed to develop, test and advance accelerator technologies of the future. Research carried out by accelerator scientists at Daresbury has had many impacts, particularly in the health and medicine arena, including work to develop our next generation of proton imaging technology for cancer detection, and research that could one day lead to more efficient diagnoses of cervical, oesophageal, and prostate cancers. In the footsteps of  senior scientist, Professor Ian Munro, who was responsible for the plan to build the SRS and for its operation at Daresbury, ASTeC’s accelerator scientists and engineers continue to play a key role in designing, building and upgrading the world’s newest generations of accelerator facilities.

Read more on the STFC/UKRI website

Image: The SRS control room


Credit: STFC

Metal-Organic Frameworks can capture toxic air pollutants

The air that we breathe

According to the World Health Organisation1 (WHO), 92% of people worldwide live in places with poor air quality, and outdoor air pollution causes 4.2 million deaths a year, with another 3.8 million caused by indoor air pollution.

Figures published by Public Health England2 showed that the health and social care costs of air pollution in England alone were £42.88 million in 2017 and could reach £5.3 billion by 2035.

There are many different types of air pollution, which arise from a wide range of sources. In the UK, five types are of particular concern: 

  1. The mixture of liquid droplets and solid particles found in the air is called particulate matter (PM). Some PM comes from natural sources (e.g., pollen, sea spray and desert dust), but it also includes dust from car exhausts, brakes and tyres and smoke. PM is classified according to size, with PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometres across) able to reach and damage the lungs and other organs.
  2. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a range of organic molecules that display similar behaviour in the atmosphere. These include vapours from household products such as air fresheners, cleaning products and perfumes, as well as petrol and solvents.
  3. Ammonia (NH3) gas is mainly released from agricultural sources such as slurry, other rotting farm waste and fertilisers.
  4. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) gases, including nitrogen dioxide (NO2), are mainly created by burning fossil fuels. 
  5. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is an acidic gas that can irritate airways, particularly in people with asthma.

SO2 and NO2 are both reactive, corrosive gases. Removing them from the air is challenging but would have enormous benefits for human health. 

Can we clean up our act with MOFs?

Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs) are sponge-like materials that can adsorb and hold “guest” molecules. By fine-tuning their properties – pore size and geometry, framework topology and chemical functionality – they can be tailored for specific applications, including gas adsorption, separation, catalysis, substrate binding and delivery. MOFs containing open metal sites (OMSs), in particular, can provide highly selective adsorption of target gases. 

However, stable MOFs with OMSs are rare, as are MOF materials that can reversibly adsorb SO2 and NO2. While there are already over 100,000 known MOFs (and over half a million structures have so far been predicted), screening each one individually for its suitability for this application would be time-consuming and costly. A far better approach is to improve our understanding of the mechanism of active sites within capture materials so that we can design or discover new functional MOF materials. This in itself is a challenging task, as host-guest interactions are often dynamic processes, where multiple binding sites of similar energies affect the movement of guest molecules in the pores.

Using synchrotron techniques, an international team of researchers has described the synthesis, crystal structure and gas adsorption and separation properties of a unique {Ni12}- wheel-based MOF that exhibits high isothermal uptake of SO2 and NO2.

Using single crystal X-ray diffraction (SCXRD) at the Advanced Light Source in California and infrared (IR) single crystal micro-spectroscopy at Diamond’s B22 beamline, the team performed dynamic breakthrough experiments that confirmed the selective retention of SO2 and NO2 at low concentrations under dry conditions. Their results show, at a crystallographic resolution, a detailed molecular mechanism with reversible coordination of SO2 and NO2 at the six open Ni(II) sites on the {Ni12}-wheel and at oxygen atom and ligand sites. 

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Artist’s impression of the unique {Ni12}- wheel-based MOF in action, exhibiting high isothermal uptake of SO2 and NO2.


Credit: Dr Sihai Yang

New angle for perovskite research

Perovskite materials offer the potential for cheaper optoelectronic devices such as solar cells. Of these, the formamidinium (FA)-based FAPbI3 crystal is one of the most promising – it has a bandgap close to ideal and is very thermally stable. However, photoactive cubic (α)-FAPbI3 perovskite phase is highly unstable and quickly transforms into the non-perovskite yellow phase at room temperature in ambient atmosphere, which affects the performance of photovoltaic devices. Alloying of FA-based perovskite with caesium, methylammonium (MA) cations or a combination of both can keep the perovskite in its more efficient phase at lower temperatures. However, this can give patchy results, leading to power losses.

In work recently published in Science, researchers from the University of Cambridge Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology (CEB) and the Cavendish Laboratory investigated the crystal structure of the alloyed perovskite materials to understand why adding cations improved their performance. Their results show that cation alloying induces a minor octahedral tilt that keeps the perovskite material in its highly efficient phase, and is a step towards commercial production of stable and efficient perovskite-based solar cells. 

A small distortion makes a big difference

Formamidinium (FA)-based perovskites have much better thermal stability than the methylammonium (MA)-based absorber layers commonly used in early perovskite-based solar cells. FAPbI3 is a particularly promising material, but its photoactive phase is only stable at high temperatures (above 150ºC) in inert atmosphere. It transitions to a hexagonal phase with poor optoelectronic performance at lower temperatures.  

It has been shown empirically that alloying FAPbI3 with methylammonium (MA) cations or caesium (or both) improves stability. However, although this approach led to record efficiencies, the mechanism underlying it was not fully understood. It also produces uneven materials with patches of instability that lead to performance losses. 

Co-lead author Tiarnan Doherty was a PhD student at the Cavendish Laboratory and is now an Oppenheimer Fellow in CEB. He says:

We wanted to investigate the atomic structure of the alloyed perovskite materials, but they’re very sensitive to damage. So we brought the samples to ePSIC for high-resolution electron microscopy with a low electron dose. We also used nano X-ray diffraction on beamline I14. That beamline has very sensitive detectors, which allowed us to achieve our results using low X-ray exposures.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Artist’s impression of formamidinium (FA)-based crystal

Credit: Tiarnan Doherty, University of Cambridge

More to life than light

The #LightSourceSelfies video campaign highlights the dedication and enthusiasm that is felt by those working in this field. To maintain a sense of physical and mental wellbeing, it is also important to make time for non-work related things like family, hobbies and interests. This montage, with contributors from the ESRF, ALS, MAX IV and Diamond, gives a flavour of the wide range of activities that those in the light source community enjoy when they are not working.

Science that just can’t wait until morning!

We know by now that coffee ranks highly on the list of things that help get light source users through their night shifts. This #LightSourceSelfie also include insights on positive thinking that can provide a much needed boost to get you through to the morning. These insights are brought to you from staff scientists at LCLS and NSLS-II in the USA and Diamond in the UK.

A supportive environment where you can learn and grow

Diamond’s #LightSourceSelfie

Nina Vyas (PDRA in correlative microscopy) and Nina Perry (Diamond Year in Industry student) filmed their #LightSourceSelfie on Diamond’s B24 beamline. B24 is a correlative cryo-imaging beamline offering 3D imaging with soft X-ray tomography (cryoSXT) complemented by super resolution fluorescence structured illumination microscopy (cryoSIM).

With only a few places in the world where researchers can access this type of equipment, working at B24 is exciting as the experiments being done are destined to have a positive impact on global health. In their #LightSourceSelfie, Nina and Nina recall their first day working on the beamline. They also describe the collaborative, supportive environment that exists, ensuring early career researchers are given the help they need to learn new skills.

Beyond B24, Diamond’s other beamlines are supporting science across a wide range of fields and, as Nina Perry says, “Some of the best things about working at light sources is the variety of science and experiments that are going on around you. We work in a biological lab but just next door there is chemistry and physics experiments, cultural heritage investigations and all sorts. The variety is endless.”

Learn more about Diamond’s B24 beamline here

Trigger of rare blood clots with AstraZeneca and other COVID vaccines found by scientists

understanding rare blood clots caused by some  COVID vaccines – important first to prevention

A collaborative team from the School of Medicine at the University of Cardiff, Wales and a range of US institutions used the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source, to help reveal the details of how a protein in the blood is attracted to a key component of Adenovirus based vaccines.  

It is believed this protein kicks off a chain reaction, involving the immune system, that can culminate in extremely rare but dangerous blood clots. The Cardiff team were given emergency government funding to find the answers. In collaboration with scientists in the US and from AstraZeneca, they set out to collect data on the structure of the vaccines and perform computer simulations and related experiments to try and uncover why some of the vaccines based on Adenoviruses were causing blood clots in rare cases.  

Moderna and BioNTech are based on mRNA, whereas AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are based on Adenoviruses. Blood clots have only been associated with vaccines that use Adenoviruses.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Crystallisation of ChAdOx1 fibre-knob protein results in 4 copies of the expected trimer per asymmetric unit and reveals side-chain locations. The crystal structure was solved with 12 copies of the monomer in the asymmetric unit, packing to form 3 trimeric biological assemblies. Density was sufficient to provide a complete structure in all copies.

Credit: Image reused from DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abl8213 under the CC BY 2.0 license. 

Collaboration: a watchword for the light source community

Scientists Nina Perry and Nina Vyas, from Diamond Light Source (https://diamond.ac.uk – the UK’s synchrotron), along with SaeHwan Chun, scientist at the PAL-XFEL (https://pal.postech.ac.kr/paleng/ – the Free Electron Laser in South Korea) talk about a theme that is common to all light sources around the world, and indeed to science and all its associated disciplines. Cooperation and collaboration, and their benefits for scientists’ wellbeing as well as the science, are highlighted in this #LightSourceSelfie video.

Nina Perry & Ninya Vyas, on Beamline B24 at Diamond Light Source, the UK’s synchrotron science facility

Paving the way for more effective pancreatic cancer research

A team of scientists led by the University of Surrey used Diamond’s B16 Beamline, a flexible and versatile beamline for testing new developments in optics and detector technology and for trialling new experimental techniques, to better understand the structure of cancer cells. 

By using the synchrotron, the team were able to complete sophisticated examinations of the characteristics of cell structures at a nano level and even at an atomic scale and to investigate how cells and materials interact with each other.  

To improve cancer screening and treatment, researchers need accurate models of cancer tissues on which to experiment. Previous research made significant progress in building accurate, novel 3D models which mimic features of a pancreatic tumour, such as structure, porosity and protein composition.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Inside the experimental hutch at Diamond’s B16 beamline.

Credit: Diamond Light Source

Developing unbreakable screens

Cracked phone screens could become a thing of the past thanks to breakthrough research by a global team of scientists

Diamond’s electron Physical Science Imaging Centre (ePSIC) was used in a study that has unlocked the technology to produce next-generation composite glass for lighting LEDs as well as smartphone, television and computer screens. 

The research was recently published in the journal Science and was carried out by an international collaboration involving scientists and engineers from the University of Queensland, University of Leeds, University of Cambridge and Université Paris-Saclay. The findings will enable the manufacture of glass screens that are not only unbreakable but also deliver crystal clear image quality.  

Better LEDs 

The study is focused on nanocrystal materials known as lead halide perovskites, which are promising candidates for light emitting diodes. A powerful electron microscope at ePSIC allowed the team to study the structure of this material. The breakthrough has been the ability to stabilise a particular crystal at room temperature.   

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Examples of the fabricated glass composite shown under a UV light (black light) to reveal the emission of bright and pure colours. The colour of light emitted from each sample is determined by the chemistry and the size of the nanocrystals embedded in a metal-organic framework glass.

Credit: University of Queensland.