Developing more nutritious crops to feed a growing world

Using synchrotron light to analyze new varieties of peas could be faster, more environmentally friendly, and help to nourish underfed populations around the world.

With thousands of seed samples produced every growing season, Dr. Tom Warkentin needs fast, accurate and cost-effective techniques to assess the nutritional value of the pea varieties he has developed. Now, thanks to two recent studies, techniques available at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron at the University of Saskatchewan show promise for Warkentin and many other plant breeders.

“These studies arose from the question, ‘Can we use the synchrotron to measure the nutrient traits in pea seeds?,’” explained Warkentin, professor of plant science and pulse breeder in the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources. “Improving the nutritional value of peas is a higher and higher priority for us in plant breeding so we wanted to look at the standard approaches we’ve been using to measure nutritional traits versus the techniques available at the CLS.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Scientists Tom Warkentin, Chithra Karunakaran, Jarvis Stobbs, and David Muir with pea samples at our IDEAS beamline.

NSLS-II scientist named DOE Office of Science Distinguished Fellow

Scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have garnered two out of five “Distinguished Scientists Fellow” awards announced today by the DOE’s Office of Science.

Theoretical physicist Sally Dawson, a world-leader in calculations aimed at describing the properties of the Higgs boson, and José Rodriguez, a renowned chemist exploring and developing catalysts for energy-related reactions, will each receive $1 million in funding over three years to pursue new research objectives within their respective fields. (…)

José Rodriguez (NSLS-II)

For discoveries of the atomic basis of surface catalysis for the synthesis of sustainable fuels, and for significantly advancing in-situ methods of investigation using synchrotron light sources.”

Rodriguez will devote his funding to the development and construction of new tools for performing extremely rapid, time-resolved measurements to track the reaction mechanisms of catalytic processes as they occur under variable conditions—like those encountered during real-world reactions important to energy applications. These include processes on metal-oxide catalysts frequently used in the production of clean fuels and other “green” chemicals through hydrogenation of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, or the conversion of methane to hydrogen.

“At a microscopic level, the structure of a catalyst and the chemical environment around the active sites—where chemical bonds are broken and reformed as reactants transform into new products—change as a function of time, thus determining the reaction mechanism,” said Rodriguez. “We can learn a lot about the nature of the active sites under steady-state conditions, with no variations in temperature, pressure, and reaction rate. But to really understand the details of the reaction mechanism, we need ways to track what happens under transient or variable conditions. This funding will allow us to build new instrumentation that works with existing capabilities so we can study catalysts under variable conditions—and use what we learn to improve their performance.”

>Read more on the NSLS-II website

Dynamic pattern of skyrmions observed

Tiny magnetic vortices known as skyrmions form in certain magnetic materials, such as Cu2OSeO3.

These skyrmions can be controlled by low-level electrical currents – which could facilitate more energy-efficient data processing. Now a team has succeeded in developing a new technique at the VEKMAG station of BESSY II for precisely measuring these vortices and observing their three different predicted characteristic oscillation modes (Eigen modes).

Cu2OSeO3 is a material with unusual magnetic properties. Magnetic spin vortices known as skyrmions are formed within a certain temperature range when in the presence of a small external magnetic field. Currently, moderately low temperatures of around 60 Kelvin (-213 degrees Celsius) are required to stabilise their phase, but it appears possible to shift this temperature range to room temperature. The exciting thing about skyrmions is that they can be set in motion and controlled very easily, thus offering new opportunities to reduce the energy required for data processing.

>Read more on the BESSY II at HZB website

Image: The illustration demonstrates skyrmions in one of their Eigen modes (clockwise).
Credit: Yotta Kippe/HZB

The driving force behind Cornell Compact Undulators at CHESS

Researchers at CHESS are working to further improve the already impressive CHESS Compact Undulator, or CCU.

Within the new NSF-funded CHEXS award, Sasha Temnykh is developing a new driving mechanisms that will add variable gap control and even better tuning of the device, both desirable qualities for a variety of experimental needs.

Undulators are critical devices for the creation of brilliant X-rays at CHESS and other lightsources around the world. With the recent CHESS-U upgrade, the Cornell Electron Storage Ring, CESR, is now outfitted with seven new insertion devices. As the beam circulates around CESR, it passes through a series of alternating magnets in the undulators, resulting in X-rays that are roughly 20 times brighter than those produced prior to the upgrade, making CHESS an even more powerful X-ray source.

Researchers at CHESS lead by Sasha Temnykh are working continuously to improve the already impressive CHESS Compact Undulator, or CCU. The CCUs are about ten times more compact, lighter, and less expensive compared to conventional insertion devices typically used at other lightsource. They also require a significant shorter fabrication time. Nine CCUs have already been constructed in industry from the Cornell-held patent, and according to KYMA, the manufacturer of the CCU, other labs are starting to show interest in the device.

>Read more on the CHESS website

Image: Sasha Temnykh is the driving force behind the Cornell Compact Undulator design and development. 

Gene encapsulation with MOFs for new delivery vectors in gene therapy

A research team from RMIT University, CSIRO Manufacturing, University of New South Wales, Graz University of Technology and the University of Adelaide, in Australia, have demonstrated an easy and efficient method to use nano MOFs for carrying large-size intact gene sets to be applied in gene therapy. Their study reports encapsulation of a complete gene-set in zeolitic imidazolate framework-8 (ZIF-8) MOFs and cellular expression of the gene delivered by the nano MOF composites, with data obtained at the MISTRAL beamline at the ALBA Synchrotron showing intracellular presence of the biocomposite particles.

MOFs (metal-organic frameworks) are porous materials with well-defined geometry and high loading capacity. For biological applications, their high porosity makes these composites an effective strategy for loading and protection of proteins; however, their use for other biomacromolecules such as nucleic acids is still in their infancy. Now, a research team lead by RMIT University from Melbourne has been studying the use of ZIF-8 MOFs as possible gene delivery vectors. The results show encapsulation of a gene-set in ZIF-8 MOFs and its cellular expression, proving that MOFs do not damage the structural and functional activity of the cargo nucleic acid, essential for possible applications in gene therapy as disease treatments.

>Read more on the ALBA website

Image: Left: Confocal laser scanning microscope images of plGFP@ZIF-8 transfected into human prostate cancer epithelial cells. See the entire image here.

Synergistic Co−Mn oxide catalyst for oxygen reduction reactions

Researchers employed synchrotron-based X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) at CHESS to investigate the synergistic interaction of bimetallic Co1.5Mn1.5O4/C catalysts… under real-time operando electrochemical conditions.

Identifying the catalytically active site(s) in the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) is critical to the development of fuel cells and other technologies. Researchers employed synchrotron-based X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) at CHESS to investigate the synergistic interaction of bimetallic Co1.5Mn1.5O4/C catalysts – which exhibit impressive ORR activity in alkaline fuel cells – under real-time operando electrochemical conditions. Under steady state conditions, both Mn and Co valences decreased at lower potentials, indicating the conversion from Mn-(III,IV) and Co(III) to Mn(II,III) and Co(II), respectively. Changes in the Co and Mn valence states are simultaneous and exhibited periodic patterns that tracked the cyclic potential sweeps.

>Read more on the CHESS website

Image: Schematic of the in situ XAS electrochemical cell. Working electrode (WE, catalyst on carbon paper) and counter electrode (CE, carbon rod) were immersed in 1 M KOH solution. The reference electrode was connected to the cell by a salt bridge to minimize IR drops caused by the resistance in the thin electrolyte layer within the X-ray window.

All SQS experiment stations up and running

Three new experiment stations expand the scientific possibilities in the field of soft X-ray science.

The soft X-ray instrument for Small Quantum Systems (SQS) welcomed its first users at the end of 2018. Now, almost a year later, the SQS team and collaborators have completed their ambitious plan to install and commission all three experiment stations, each specifically designed for different types of experiments and samples, ranging from atoms and small molecules to large clusters, nanoparticles and biomolecules. We look at how the instrument has developed during the past year, how important collaboration has been for the success of SQS so far, and what lies ahead.

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: SQS scientist Rebecca Boll makes final adjustments on the AQS experiment station before the first users arrive at the end of 2018.
Credit: European XFEL

CLS celebrates 20th anniversary of its launch

From the discovery of an enzyme able to turn any blood into a universal donor type, to a process that creates plastic from sunshine and pollution, to identifying heat-tolerance traits in pea varieties, scientific advances achieved at the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) are being celebrated asv the institution marks the 20th anniversary of its launch. “This unique-in-Canada research centre arose from an unprecedented level of collaboration among governments, universities, and industry in Canada, and represents the single largest investment in Canadian science,” said USask President Peter Stoicheff.  “Strongly endorsed two decades ago by many other universities across Canada and by an international scientific panel, the CLS has made possible cutting-edge research that benefits human and animal health, agriculture, advanced materials, and the environment. For USask’s research community, it has helped us be the university the world needs.”

Construction of the synchrotron facility on the USask campus began in 1999 and its official opening was held Oct. 22, 2004. Since then, thousands of scientists from across Canada and around the world have come to the CLS to run experiments that could not be done elsewhere in Canada.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Worldwide scientific collaboration develops catalysis breakthrough

A new article  just published in Nature Catalysis shows the simple ways of controlling the structure of platinum nanoparticles and tuning their catalytic properties. 

Research led by Cardiff Catalysis Institute (CCI) in collaboration with scientists from Lehigh University, Jazan University, Zhejiang University, Glasgow University, University of Bologna, Research Complex at Harwell (RCaH), and University College London have combined their unique skills to develop and understand using advanced characterisation methods (particularly TEM and B18 at Diamond Light Source), how it is possible to use a simple preparation method to control and manipulate the structures of metal nanoparticles. These metal nanoparticles are widely used by industry as innovative catalysts for the production of bulk chemicals like polymers, liquid fuels (e.g., diesel, petrol) and other speciality chemicals (pharmaceutical products).

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Andy Beale works at Diamond Light Source.

Structure and functional binding epitopes of VISTA

V-domain Ig Suppressor of T-cell Activation (VISTA) is an immune checkpoint protein involved in the regulation of T cell activity. Checkpoint proteins are overexpressed by cancer cells or surrounding immune cells and prevent anti-tumor activity by co-opting natural regulation mechanisms to escape immune clearance. Compared to healthy tissues, VISTA is upregulated on tumor infiltrating leukocytes, including high expression on myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs). Through VISTA signaling, these inhibitory immune cells prevent effective antigen presentation and indirectly promote tumor growth. VISTA is implicated in a number of human cancers including skin (melanoma), prostate, colon, pancreatic, ovarian, endome­trial, and non-small cell lung. VISTA is a known member of the B7 protein family but the mechanism of action is still unclear as VISTA has been shown to function as both a ligand1,2 and a receptor3.  In the model of VISTA as a receptor, the proposed ligand of interaction is V-set and immunoglobulin domain containing 3 (VSIG3)4,5.

>Read more on the SSRL website

Image: Structure of human VISTA with extended C-C’ loop (blue), mapped VSTB/VSIG3 binding epitope (red), and disulfide bonds (yellow).