Fighting malaria with X-rays

Today 25 April, is World Malaria Day.

Considered as one of humanity’s oldest life-threatening diseases, nearly half the world population is at risk, with 216 million people affected in 91 countries worldwide in 2016. Malaria causes 445 000 deaths every year, mainly among children. The ESRF has been involved in research into Malaria since 2005, with different techniques being used in the quest to find ways to prevent or cure the disease.

Malaria in humans is caused by Plasmodium parasites, the greatest threat coming from two species: P. falciparum and P. vivax. The parasites are introduced through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. They travel to the liver where they multiply, producing thousands of new parasites. These enter the blood stream and invade red blood cells, where they feed on hemoglobin (Hgb) in order to grow and multiply. After creating up to 20 new parasites, the red blood cells burst, releasing daughter parasites ready for new invasions. This life cycle leads to an exponential growth of infected red blood cells that may cause the death of the human host.

The research carried out over the years at the ESRF has aimed to identify mechanisms critical for the parasite’s survival in the hope of providing an intelligent basis for the development of drugs to stop the parasite’s multiplication and spread.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Inside the experimental hutch of the ESRF’s ID16A nano-analysis beamlin.
Credit: Pierre Jayet

Unravelling the great vision of flies

Fruit flies have a much better vision than what was previously believed in the scientific community.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield (UK), the University of Oulu (Finland), Max IV (Sweden) and University of Szeged (Hungary) are on ID16B trying to find out what happens in the photoreceptors in these insects’ eyes.

“It had always been claimed that fly’s eyesight was very basic, but I couldn’t believe that after so many centuries of evolution this was still the case”, explains Mikko Juusola, head of the Centre for Cognition in Small Brains at Sheffield University. So he started studying vision in fruit flies a decade ago and last year himself and his team debunked previous hypothesis: they proved that insects have a much better vision and can see in far greater detail than previously thought.

Insects’ compound eyes typically consist of thousands of tiny lens-capped ‘eye-units’, which together should capture a low-resolution pixelated image of the surrounding world. In contrast, the human eye has a single large lens, and the retinal photoreceptor array underneath it is densely-packed, which allows the eye to capture high-resolution images. This is why it was believed that insects did not have a good eyesight. Until Juusola came in the picture.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Marko Huttula (University of Oulu, Finland), Jussi-Petteri Suuronen (ESRF) and Mikko Juusola (University of Sheffield, UK) on ESRF’s ID16B beamline. Credit: ©ESRF/C.Argoud

Serial crystallography develops by leaps and bounds at the ESRF

Serial crystallography is a new way of studying macromolecular structures using synchrotron and X-FEL sources around the world.

The Structural Biology group at the ESRF is continuously developing new methods to advance the field. Two articles describing advances made are published today in Acta Crystallographica Section D.

“On the Structural Biology Group beamlines one of the ultimate aims is that users can define protocols for experiments, click ‘go’ and let the experiments run by themselves”, explains Gordon Leonard, head of the Structural Biology group at the ESRF. With this idea in mind and to get as much information as possible from the samples available, the team has already adopted serial crystallography, a technique which involves taking diffraction data from many, sometimes hundreds or thousands, of crystals in order to assemble a complete dataset, piece by piece. Indeed, the members of the group are constantly developing new ways to improve the method through collaboration involving scientists from the ESRF, DESY, the Hamburg Centre for Ultrafast Imaging, the European X-FEL and the University of Hamburg.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Daniele de Sanctis on the ID29 beamline.
Credit: S. Candé.

A colour photography pioneer comes to light thanks to the synchrotron

The colour prints of Louis Ducos du Hauron, an unknown pioneer of colour photography, have been put under the infrared and X-rays at the ESRF, the European Synchrotron (Grenoble, France) to better understand the methods he used. A team of researchers and curators from the ESRF, CNRS, C2RMF , Musée d’Orsay, École nationale supérieure Louis Lumière, the faculty of Science and Engineering of the Sorbonne University, the Chimie Paris Tech and a private photography conservator and curator has published the results of this study in Angewandte Chemie.

Who invented colour photography?

To this question, most people would reply “the brothers Lumière”. Their procedure “autochrome” is recorded into posterity because the brothers commercialised it with success. However, a photography pioneer has been kept in the shadow: Louis Ducos du Hauron. This is despite the fact that he patented an animated image-processing method in 1864, the same year that Louis Lumière was born. He was the first one to produce three-color prints using three negatives printed into three colour positives (one red, one yellow and one blue), in a similar manner to how printers today function.

As if he were a cook, Ducos du Hauron spent his life creating “recipes” – procedures based on scientific experimentation- to achieve a faithful reconstruction of reality through colour photographs. He photographed each scene through green, orange, and violet filters, then printed his three negatives on three thin films of dichromate gelatin containing red, blue, and yellow pigments, the complementary colours of the filters used for the negatives. When the three positives were superimposed, a full-colour photograph resulted.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron (ESRF) website

Image: General principle of three-color carbon printing developed by Ducos du Hauron. (Full image here)
Credit: ESRF

The early bird got to fly: Archaeopteryx was an active flyer

Was Archaeopteryx capable of flying, and if so, how?

The question of whether the Late Jurassic dino-bird Archaeopteryx was an elaborately feathered ground dweller, a glider, or an active flyer has fascinated palaeontologists for decades. Valuable new information obtained with state-of-the-art synchrotron microtomography at the ESRF, the European Synchrotron (Grenoble, France), allowed an international team of scientists to answer this question in Nature Communications. The wing bones of Archaeopteryx were shaped for incidental active flight, but not for the advanced style of flying mastered by today’s birds.

Was Archaeopteryx capable of flying, and if so, how? Although it is common knowledge that modern-day birds descended from extinct dinosaurs, many questions on their early evolution and the development of avian flight remain unanswered. Traditional research methods have thus far been unable to answer the question whether Archaeopteryx flew or not. Using synchrotron microtomography at the ESRF’s beamline ID19 to probe inside Archaeopteryx fossils, an international team of scientists from the ESRF, Palacký University, Czech Republic, CNRS and Sorbonne University, France, Uppsala University, Sweden, and Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum Solnhofen, Germany, shed new light on this earliest of birds.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: The Munich specimen of the transitional bird Archaeopteryx. It preserves a partial skull (top left), shoulder girdle and both wings slightly raised up (most left to center left), the ribcage (center), and the pelvic girdle and both legs in a “cycling” posture (right); all connected by the vertebral column from the neck (top left, under the skull) to the tip of the tail (most right). Imprints of its wing feathers are visible radiating from below the shoulder and vague imprints of the tail plumage can be recognised extending from the tip of the tail.
Credits: ESRF/Pascal Goetgheluck

What makes pollen walls the most durable biological material?

Sporopollenin is the most durable biological material in nature and is a major component of the outer wall of pollen.

Scientists at the Natural History Museum (UK) and the ESRF are investigating the structure of the pollen wall this past weekend, on ID16A, to find out why this material is so resistant.

This experiment would not have taken place if chance, luck, but mostly curiosity had not played a major role in this story. ESRF post-doctoral researcher Ruxandra Cojocaru was talking to colleagues at the facility, looking for an appropriate material for a sedimentation study. Many discussions later, she ended up finding what she needed at the Natural History Museum in London, where curator and pollen specialist Stephen Stukins works.

Several exchanges later, and with an approved proposal for a different project than the original, they are now on ID16A to study the structure of pollen at nanolevel. “Throughout time, there have been species that have disappeared, yet the major plant groups have been relatively resistant to extinction. This may be due to the resistant sporopollenin material that was adapted for plant survival on land, especially exposure to UV radiation”, explains Stukins. With fellow NHM microfossil curator Giles Miller, he has brought fossil samples of Bathonian age, from the Jurassic era, that are part of the museum collection. “What we want to see is the structure of pollen, and more precisely of the sporopollenin outer wall. This is an almost inert biological polymer and we think it is key to the properties of pollen”, says Stukins.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: the sample in its set-up at the European Synchrotron.
Credit: Montserrat Capellas Espuny

Opportunities for industry in the Big Science Business Forum

The European Synchrotron is immersed in the construction of the Extremely Brilliant Source, a new machine which has and will continue to open doors for industry to get involved.

From procurement to licensing or even through European programmes, the possibilities of marrying the big scientific infrastructures to industry are endless. A team of ESRF engineers and experts are present at the Big Science Business Forum this week to showcase their expertise and match it with the best companies.

In the coming years, with the new machine, there will be 56 million euros for technology development up for grabs. These will cover instrumentation and X-ray optics for the beamlines, detectors, electronics and motor control and information technology. “We have successfully finalised all of the procurement regarding the construction of the new machine, now we are concentrating on the new beamlines”, explains Ingrid Milanese, head of procurement and contracts.

Procurement at a place like the ESRF is an exciting albeit sometimes challenging task. The fact that the institute’s developments are at the forefront of technology means that the procurement officers deal with a very specialised market, so there is a lot of work on trying to find the right companies. On top of that, there are strict timeframes to be respected, as well as a policy of juste-retour with the member states that participate in funding the ESRF. “Because of our nature, we challenge industry and create opportunities for disruptive innovation in many different fields”, explains Michael Krisch,   member of the ATTRACT Project Consortium Board and Head of the Instrumentation Services and Development Division at the ESRF.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

From Antarctica to the beamline, #weekendusers

A Belgian team is trying to find out about the origin of the Solar System by studying micrometeorites from Antarctica on the Dutch-Belgian beamline (DUBBLE).

Sør Rondane Mountains, Antarctica, 2013. Steven Goderis, from the Analytical Environmental and Geochemistry (AMGC) research group in the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium), is part of a Japanese-Belgian expedition looking for meteorites preserved in the cold and dry environment of the South Pole. And they hit the jackpot: they found 635 fragments of micrometeorites. After coming back with the precious load, similar meteorite recovery expeditions and field campaigns focusing on micrometeorites continued in the following years, all equally successful. To date, they have found hundreds of pieces of meteorites and thousands of pieces of micrometeorites.

So what is the point of micrometeorites? Of all the material reaching Earth from space only a small part will survive the heating and shock experienced upon entry in the atmosphere. The large majority of this material, the micrometeorites, will rain on Earth as extraterrestrial particles of less than 2mm in size. Although meteorites in general provide us with essential information on the origin and evolution of the planets and the Solar System, micrometeorites, mostly originating from the most primitive objects still remaining in the Solar System, raise an even higher scientific interest. “Any information we can get from micrometeorites will complement the knowledge we have of meteorites, so it is really important to study them. We have a wide array of samples so that we can get the best possible picture of these materials”, explains Bastien Soens, who is doing his PhD on this subject.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: The team on the beamline. From left to right: Niels de Winter, Bastien Soens, Dip Banerjee, Stephen Bauers and Niels Collyns.
Credits: C. Argoud. 

Kilian Peter Heeg wins ESRF Young Scientist award

Kilian Peter Heeg has been awarded the title of Young Scientist 2018 by the ESRF User Organisation in recognition of his pioneering work on light-matter interactions enabling resonant brilliance enhancement of X-ray pulses. This award is presented every year at the ESRF annual User Meeting to a scientist aged 37 or younger for outstanding work conducted at the ESRF.

Kilian Heeg is a physicist and postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany. Aged just 31, Kilian has already significantly shaped the field of X-ray quantum optics.

Kilian says: “I wanted to be a mathematician when I was a child and I was always fascinated by natural sciences. However in my final years in school I fell in love with physics and very quickly became fascinated with quantum mechanics and especially quantum optics. I feel very honoured and pleased to have been chosen as the winner of this year’s ESRF Young Scientist Award.”

>Read more on the ESRF website

Image: Kilian on ESRF’s ID18 beamline
Credit: ESRF/C. Argoud

ID23-EH2: Gearing up for serial crystallography

ID23-EH2 is up and running, catering to small samples and serial crystallography experiments. Its small beam and unique diffractometer are the trademarks of this new MX beamline.

“This is amazing”, says David Drew, a user from Stockholm University, on the new ID23-EH2. “There is a perfect beam line to be screening LCP crystals. After 5 years working on this… it is amazing to be able to speed up finding the best spot to collect”, he adds. Drew and his team are on ID23-EH2. They are the first users since ID23-EH2 opened for business this month and have just started the experiment. He works with his team in transport proteins, which carry nutrients across membrane proteins and are important drug targets. 

>Read more on the ESRF website

Picture: Max Nanao with the users from the University of Stockholm (Sweden).


Did plate tectonics aid the development of life on Earth?

The appearance of plate tectonics 2.5 billion years ago, favouring the internal dynamics of the Earth, would have allowed a significant release of oxygen in the atmosphere inducing the development of life on our planet, according to a study published by the journal Geochemical Perspectives.

The Earth’s atmosphere remained anoxic for two billion years after the formation of our planet. Then, its oxygen content increased drastically during a well-identified Great Oxygenation Event. It is generally believed that the release of free oxygen was due to the biosphere itself, in relation with the evolution of life on Earth. An international team of researchers from Laboratoire Magmas et Volcans (Université Clermont-Ferrand, CNRS-IRD-OPGC), Géosciences Montpellier (Université de Montpellier, CNRS), the laboratory Conditions Extrêmes et Matériaux: Haute Température et Irradiation (CNRS), and involving five scientists from the ESRF propose a completely different scenario. Based on the experimental observation of a significant amount of ferric iron in the deep Earth’s mantle, they suggest an ascent toward the Earth’s surface of a primordial oxidised-mantle material, inducing the arrival of oxygen into the atmosphere. The upwelling movements would have been hampered during the Archean eon, which was dominated by floating micro-plates at the Earth’s surface. Then, major mantle mixing started when modern plate tectonics and deep slab subduction were established about 2.5 billion years ago, enabling the release of oxygen to the Earth’s surface.

>Read more on the ESRF website



G. Ghiringhelli and L. Braicovich win 2018 Europhysics Prize of Condensed Matter

>Read more on the ESRF website


How can asbestos teach us about carbon nanotubes?

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are already used in industry.

They have a fibrous structure that resembles that of asbestos. A team from University ofTrieste, IRCCS Burlo Garofolo, University of Turin, Elettra (Italy) and ESRF has studied both materials at the ESRF’s beamline ID21 and Elettra and has found that the presence of iron impurities in CNTs causes an asbestos-like toxicity in pleural cells. The scientists publish their results in Scientific Reports today.

>Read more on the ESRF website

Image: An artistic impression of a carbon nanotube.

Scientists measure accelerated emission

Grazing light for rapid events

An international team, including scientists from DESY,  has verified a prediction about the quantum-mechanical behaviour of resonant systems made more than 50 years ago. In experiments at SACLA, the Japanese X-ray laser, and at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility ESRF in France, the group led by Aleksandr Chumakov from ESRF could show a dramatic reduction in the time to emit the first X-ray photon from an ensemble of excited nuclei when the number of X-rays for the excitation was increased. This behaviour is in good agreement with one limit of a superradiant system, predicted by the US physicist Robert Dicke in 1954, as the scientists report in the journal Nature Physics.

One of the broad challenges of science is to understand the behaviour of groups of atoms based on the response of a single atom in isolation, which is usually much simpler. A facet of this is understanding the behaviour of a group of identical oscillators. An analogy is a collection of bells that all have the same tone: one can easily imagine the sound of a single bell struck once – a clear tone ringing out with a volume that decays away over time.

But what happens if one gently taps all the bells in a large collection? Will the tone be the same as a single one? What about the volume? What about the direction – does it matter where you are standing when you listen to the sound? Does it matter if you tap them all at the same time?

>Read more on the FLASH website

Brittle star shows how to make tough ceramics

Nature inspires innovation.

An international team lead by researchers at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, together with ESRF scientists, have discovered how a brittle star can create material like tempered glass underwater. The findings are published in Science and may open new bio-inspired routes for toughening brittle ceramics in various applications.

A beautiful, brainless brittle star that lives in coral reefs has the clue to super tough glass. Hundreds of focal lenses are located on the arms of this creature, which is an echinoderm called Ophiocoma wendtii. These lenses, made of chalk, are powerful and accurate, and the deciphering of their crystalline and nanoscale structure has occupied Boaz Pokroy and his team, from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, for the past three years. Thanks to research done on three ESRF beamlines, ID22, ID13 and ID16B, among other laboratories, they have figured out the unique protective mechanism of highly resistant lenses.

Read more on the ESRF website

Image: The brittle star Ophiocoma wendtii shows amazing properties.
Credit: Sinhyu.

Synchrotron sheds light on the amphibious lifestyle of a new raptorial dinosaur

An exceptionally well-preserved dinosaur skeleton from Mongolia at ESRF.

The skeleton unites an unexpected combination of features that defines a new group of semi-aquatic predators related to Velociraptor. Detailed 3D synchrotron analysis allowed an international team of researchers to present the bizarre 75 million-year-old predator, named Halszkaraptor escuilliei, in Nature.

The study not only describes a new genus and species of bird-like dinosaur that lived during the Campanian stage of the Cretaceous in Mongolia but also sheds light on an unexpected amphibious lifestyle for raptorial dinosaurs.

>Read more on the ESRF website

Image: The team of scientists at ESRF’s BM05 beamline during the set up of Halszkaraptor escuilliei fossil. From left to right: Pascal Godefroit, Vincent Beyrand, Dennis Voeten, Paul Tafforeau, Vincent Fernandez, Andrea Cau.
Credit: ESRF/P.Jayet