New imaging technique could shed light on individual molecules

An international research team has succeeded for the first time in using X-rays for an imaging technique that exploits a particular quantum property of light. The research team, led by Henry Chapman, leading scientist at DESY and professor at Universität Hamburg, used very intense X-ray pulses from the European XFEL to generate fluorescence from copper atoms. By measuring two photons from the emitted fluorescence almost simultaneously, scientists can obtain images of the copper atoms. The research, published in Physical Review Letters, could enable imaging of individual large molecules.

The atomic structures of materials and large molecules such as proteins are usually determined using X-ray crystallography, which relies on “coherent” X-ray scattering. Undesirable incoherent processes like fluorescence emission, however, can dominate the measurements, adding a featureless fog or background to the measured data. In the 1950s, astronomers Robert Hanbury Brown and Richard Twiss coined a method called “intensity interferometry”, that can extract structural information through the ‘incoherent’ fog. The method exploits the quantum mechanical properties of light, and opened the door to new understanding of light.

Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: The sum of over 58 million correlations of X-ray fluorescence snapshots is shown in the left insert, which was analysed by methods of coherent diffractive imaging to produce a high-resolution image of the source – here two illuminated spots in a spinning copper disk. Right insert: Reconstructed fluorescence emitter distribution at the copper disc with the two beam spots clearly visible.

Credit: DESY, Fabian Trost

Tiny proteins found across the animal kingdom play a key role in cancer spread

Researchers from McGill University have made an exciting discovery about specific proteins involved in the spread of certain cancers.

Dr. Kalle Gehring, professor of biochemistry and founding director of the McGill Centre for Structural Biology, and his team have focused on unravelling the mystery around phosphatases of regenerating liver (PRLs). These proteins are found in all kinds of animals and insects — from humans to fruit flies – and play a unique role in the growth of cancerous tumours and the spread of cancer throughout the body.

“It’s important for us to study PRLs because they are so important in cancer,” said Gehring, “In some cancers, like metastatic colorectal cancer, the proteins are overexpressed up to 300-fold.”

This overexpression of PRLs makes cancer cells more metastatic and drives the spread to other organs.

In his most recent paper, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Gehring and his colleagues confirmed that PRLs exist in all kinds of single- and multi-cell animals. Data collected at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan confirmed the role of PRLs in binding magnesium transporters, helping to further the understanding of how these proteins influence human disease.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Filming molecular chiral dynamics from the inside with FEL

Chiral molecules are essential for understanding many aspects of chemistry, biology, and physics. A chiral molecule is non-superimposable with its mirror image and exists in two different forms called enantiomers. The reactivity and biological and pharmacological activity of chiral molecules can vary significantly depending on the configuration of the enantiomers. Understanding this property is crucial for developing technologically innovative and advanced solutions in materials science, pharmaceuticals, and catalysis.

The scientific communities of biology and chemistry have devoted significant efforts to exploring the phenomenon of chirality, yet much remains unknown about the ultrafast dynamics of chiral compounds. Time-Resolved Photo-Electron Circular Dichroism (TR-PECD) has recently emerged as a promising approach for investigating time-dependent chiral dynamics, as it enables researchers to observe the enantio-dependent structural relaxation of a molecule on a femtosecond timescale. The technique involves utilizing an ultrashort circular pulse to ionize a photo-excited molecule from the valence shell, where the transient dichroism of the medium is mapped on the forward-backward asymmetry of the photoelectron emission along the pulse propagation axis. Despite its potential, the non-local character of this approach makes the interpretation of the experimental results challenging.

Read more on the Elettra website

Organic matter found in 44-million-year-old beetle fossil

Remember Jurassic Park? The dinosaurs in that movie franchise were brought to life through DNA found in amber. The DNA purportedly came from mosquitoes that had taken blood from dinosaurs prior to being trapped in the tree resin that turned into amber.

Amber, a semi-precious stone that is fossilized tree resin, often contains the fossilized remains of insects and other small creatures, with little, if any, organic matter left. No organic matter, no dinosaur DNA, no Jurassic Park.

However, a team of researchers from the University of Regina, Royal Saskatchewan Museum, and Institute of Life Sciences and Technologies at Daugavpils University in Latvia, have now identified what appears to be organic matter in a 44-million-year-old beetle fossilized in amber.

This remarkable finding, and the methodology used in making it, has been published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, the fifth most-cited journal in the world.

“Using a set of advanced techniques we’ve not tried before, we took a 44-million-year-old beetle trapped in Baltic amber to see if it was possible that any preserved organic material might be present,” says U of R master’s of science student Jerit Mitchell, lead author of the study.

Dr. Mauricio Barbi, a U of R physics professor, says the team used the synchrotron radiation facilities at the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Light Source (CLS) in Saskatoon to extract high-resolution 3D micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) images of the beetle.

“The synchrotron mid-infrared radiation gave us the capability to identify possible organic compounds in the specimen. We then complemented these two synchrotron radiation techniques by using a scanning electron microscope to provide further high-resolution images of the beetle and to determine the specific chemical elements present in the sample,” says Barbi, who led the team that discovered structurally preserved fossilized dinosaur cell layers in the skin of a 72-million-year-old hadrosaur.”

Read more on the website

Image: Jerit Mitchell gazing at a millions-year-old fossilized beetle

 Credit: U of R Photography

Researchers study molecular bindings to develop better cancer treatments

A research team based in Winnipeg is using the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to find new, cutting-edge ways to battle cancer.

Dr. Jörg Stetefeld, a professor of biochemistry and Tier-1 Canada Research Chair in Structural Biology and Biophysics at the University of Manitoba, is leading groundbreaking research into how netrin-1 — a commonly found molecule related to cell migration and differentiation —  creates filaments and binds to receptors in cells.

As netrin-1 is considered the key player for the migration of cancer cells, Stetefeld said this research could inform new cancer treatments.

“If you understand how netrin binds these receptors, you are sitting in the driver’s seat to develop approaches to block this interaction,” he said. “Why do we want to block it? Because if you block this interaction, you kill the cancer cell.”

Earlier research published in 2016 led to the development of new antibody treatments in Europe for combating breast cancer, said Stetefeld. He hopes this new research, which was published in the journal Nature, can lead to better drugs and treatments as well.

Read more on the CLS website

The APS prepares for its renewal

The facility’s ultrabright X-ray beams will turn off for a year to enable a comprehensive upgrade, one that will light the way to new breakthroughs

With the start of the construction period, the Advanced Photon Source is now only a year away from re-emerging as a world-leading X-ray light source. Its brighter beams will lead to new discoveries in energy storage, materials science, medicine and more.

Today, a year-long effort to renew the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, officially begins.

After years of planning and preparation, the team behind the APS Upgrade project will now spend the next 12 months removing the old electron storage ring at the heart of the facility, replacing it with a brand new, state-of-the-art storage ring and testing the new ring once it is in place. The team will also build seven new experiment stations, construct the needed infrastructure for two more and update nearly every existing experiment station around the APS ring.

This is an extensive project, representing an $815 million investment from DOE. When complete, the APS will re-emerge as a world leader in global hard X-ray synchrotron science, enabling unimaginable new discoveries. Science conducted at the APS will lead to longer-lasting, faster-charging batteries, more durable airplane engines and better treatments for infectious diseases, among many other discoveries.

“The APS Upgrade is not only an investment in the facility’s future, but in the next 25 years of advancements that will change the way we power our vehicles, harness renewable energy and learn more about the fundamental science that underpins our future technologies.” — Linda Horton, associate director of science for Basic Energy Sciences, U.S. Department of Energy.

“This is a significant day for Argonne,” said Argonne Director Paul Kearns. ​“The APS Upgrade will transform the future of science for America and the world. Once we safely complete construction, the APS will shed new light on how the brain works, develop materials to decarbonize our economy, refine quantum technologies that can power the internet of the future and answer many other questions in numerous other disciplines.”

Read more on the Argonne National Laboratory website

Image: The Advanced Photon Source is undergoing a comprehensive upgrade that will result in X-ray beams that are up to 500 times brighter than the current facility can create. After a year-long shutdown, the upgraded APS will open the door to discoveries we can barely imagine today

Credit: Argonne National Laboratory/JJ Starr

Synchrotron technique reveals more details of mysterious underlying portrait in Renaissance painting

Conservators and curators from the Art Gallery of New South Wales have used an advanced imaging technique at the Australian Synchrotron to gain more information about an underpainting in a famous Renaissance portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1537 to 1569.

The painting, Cosimo I de’ Medici in armour, by Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino , is one of at least 25 known portraits of the Duke in armour and the only painting by the Italian mannerist painter in an Australian collection.

Art Gallery of NSW painting conservators Simon Ives, and Paula Dredge (now at The University of Melbourne) and curator of international art Anne Gérard-Austin, used the X-ray fluorescence (XFM) microscopy instrument to scan the portrait with the assistance of senior instrument scientist Dr Daryl Howard.

As reported in an article recently published in the prestigious art journal, The Burlington Magazine, most of the metallic elements in pigments can potentially be imaged with the technique.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image: (left) Cosimo I de”Medici in armor by Agnolo Bronzini c1545 Art Gallery of NSW and (right) Composite XRF scan map showing mercury (red) and iron (green)

Synchrotron techniques reveal structural details of fossilised fragment of a rare Australian dinosaur skull

This week palaeontologists from Curtin University announced that a specimen from the collection of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum in Winton Queensland as the first near complete skull of a sauropod, a massive, long-tailed, long-necked, small-headed plant-eating dinosaur, found in Australia and other parts of the world.

The team took 3D images of the entire group of skull fragments, of which a small piece, the premaxilla bone, was scanned in higher detail on the Imaging and Medical beamline at ANSTO’s Australian Synchrotron.

Instrument beamline scientists Dr Chris Hall and Dr Anton Maksimenko assisted with the IMBL measurements and data processing respectively.

“The synchrotron imaging confirmed there were replacement teeth inside the premaxillary bone,” said Senior Instrument scientist Dr Joseph Bevitt, who often assists palaeontologists’ with neutron scanning of fossils at the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering and the IMBL instrument at the Australian Synchrotron.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Always on the pulse of time

On 1 January 2023, the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI turned 35. And these past 35 years have been very eventful. Some of those events have to do with the development and the history of the Institute: new large research facilities have been added; proton therapy has become increasingly important; the spin-offs created at PSI and the licensing agreements concluded were also important. Most recently, the focus has been on exploring quantum physics and using it in practical applications. Another group of events has to do with research itself, with the history of science at PSI. These are about research and research results that are not only, but to a large extent, related to the unique large research facilities available at PSI.

Read more on the PSI website

Image: 1988: Foundation of the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI

X-rays make 3D metal printing more predictable

Insights into the microscopic details of 3D printing gained using the microXAS beamline of the Swiss Light Source SLS could propel the technology toward wider application.

Researchers have not yet gotten the additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, of metals down to a science completely. Gaps in our understanding of what happens within metal during the process have made results inconsistent. But new research could grant a greater level of mastery over metal 3D printing.

Using powerful x-rays generated by the Swiss Light Source SLS and Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source, researchers at Paul Scherrer Institute PSI, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and other institutions have peered into the internal structure of steel as it was melted and then solidified during 3D printing. The findings, published in Acta Materialia, unlock a computational tool for 3D-printing professionals, offering them a greater ability to predict and control the characteristics of printed parts, potentially improving the technology’s consistency and feasibility for large-scale manufacturing. 

“So-called operando measurements with x-rays enable us to capture what is really happening to the microstructure during a rapid process such as printing.” said Steven Van Petegem, senior scientist at PSI, who led the experimental work performed at the SLS using the microXAS beamline.

Read more on the PSI website

Image: Researchers used high-speed X-ray diffraction to identify the crystal structures that form within steel as it is 3D-printed. The angle at which the X-rays exit the metal correspond to types of crystal structures within.

Credit: H. König et al. via Creative Commons (, adapted by N. Hanacek/NIST

JoAnne Hewett Named Director of Brookhaven National Laboratory

The Board of Directors of Brookhaven Science Associates (BSA) has named theoretical physicist JoAnne Hewett as the next director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and BSA president. BSA, a partnership between Stony Brook University (SBU) and Battelle, manages and operates Brookhaven Lab for DOE’s Office of Science. Hewett will also hold the title of professor in SBU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and professor at SBU’s C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics.

“JoAnne has a strong research background and extensive experience as a scientist and leader,” said DOE Office of Science Director Asmeret Asefaw Berhe. “She is a great choice to advance the Department of Energy’s priorities at Brookhaven—from fundamental breakthroughs to applications that improve people’s lives each and every day.”

Hewett’s appointment comes after an international search that began in summer 2022. Current Brookhaven Lab Director Doon Gibbs announced in March 2022 his plans to step down after leading the Laboratory for nearly a decade.

Hewett comes to Brookhaven from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, CA, where she most recently served as associate lab director (ALD) for fundamental physics and chief research officer. She also is a professor of particle physics and astrophysics at SLAC/Stanford University.

“JoAnne brings vital experience and proven leadership skills to further Brookhaven Lab’s game-changing discoveries and innovative breakthroughs that benefit science and society,” said Maurie McInnis, president, Stony Brook University, and co-chair, BSA Board of Directors. “As Brookhaven advances major projects, expands its mission, and further modernizes its campus where scientists are solving the most urgent challenges of our time, we are pleased to welcome her as the Lab’s next director.”

Read more on the BNL website

Image: JoAnne Hewett 

Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

How much cadmium is contained in cocoa beans?

Cocoa beans can absorb toxic heavy metals such as cadmium from the soil. Some cultivation areas, especially in South America, are polluted with these heavy metals, in some cases considerably. In combining different X-ray fluorescence techniques, a team at BESSY II has now been able to non-invasively measure for the first time where cadmium accumulates exactly in cocoa beans: Mainly in the shell. Further investigations show that the processing of the cocoa beans can have a great influence on the concentration of heavy metals.

People have been harvesting the beans of the cocoa bush for at least 5000 years. They have learned to ferment, roast, grind and process the beans with sugar and fat to make delicious chocolates. Today, around five million tonnes of beans are on the market every year, coming from only a few growing areas in tropical regions.

Soul food chocolate

Chocolate is considered a soul food: amino acids such as tryptophan brighten the mood. Cocoa beans also contain anti-inflammatory compounds and valuable trace elements. However, cocoa plants also absorb toxic heavy metals if the soils are polluted, for example by mining, which can gradually poison groundwater and soils.

Where do the toxic elements accumulate?

An important question is,  where exactly the heavy metals accumulate in the bean, whether rather in the shell or rather in the endosperm inside the bean. From the harvest to the raw material for chocolate, the beans undergo many steps of different treatments, which could possibly reduce the contamination. And ideally the treatment could be optimised in order to make sure that the heavy metals are reduced but the desirable trace elements are retained.

Mapping the beans at BESSY II

A team led by Dr. Ioanna Mantouvalou (HZB) and Dr. Claudia Keil (TU Berlin/Toxicology) has now combined various imaging methods at the BAMline of BESSY II to precisely map the heavy metal concentrations in cocoa beans. They examined cocoa samples from a cultivation region in Colombia, which were contaminated with an average of 4.2 mg/kg cadmium. This is well above the European limits of 0.1-0.8 mg cadmium/kg in cocoa products.

Read more on the HZB website

Image: Cocoa beans are the main ingredients of chocolate, a famous “soul food”. However, cocoa plants also absorb toxic heavy metals if the soils are polluted. At BESSY II, a team has now mapped the local distribution of heavy metals inside the beans.

Credit: © AdobeStock

Imaging Earth’s crust reveals natural secret for reducing carbon emissions

Using the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan and its BMIT-ID beamline, he discovered much larger pores in samples from the Earth’s crust than predicted.

“I expected nanometer-sized pores, whereas I ended up finding pores up to 200 microns — so several orders of magnitudes larger,” said Pujatti, a scientist in the University of Calgary’s Department of Geoscience who recently defended his PhD. “This was very, very puzzling to me.”

Three-dimensional CLS imaging techniques allowed him to see the rocks’ internal structure. There, he found the pores in a mineral called olivine, which is made up largely of silica and magnesium.

As in other geologic systems, he thought the olivine would form new minerals — basically clays — as it dissolved “but I didn’t see that,” he said. “I could only see pores.”

“Finally, I realized the types of fluids that percolated through these rocks were too cold to lead to the formation of new minerals.” The ‘culprit’ was simply sea water.

“Classically, we always consider the oceanic crust as a sink for magnesium,” he said. “Instead, interactions between fluids and these olivine-rich rocks release magnesium.”

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Simone Pujatti (right) and Benjamin Tutolo.

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)

Researchers observe topological magnetic monopoles and dipoles in a ferromagnetic material

A scientific collaboration between scientists from Universidad de Oviedo and ALBA Synchrotron has achieved a detailed description of magnetic singularities and their interactions from the analysis of data acquired at MISTRAL beamline with the magnetic vector tomography technique. The results of the study, fully experimental not involving simulations and published at Communications Physics, provide a solid ground to understand fundamental knowledge about these singularities, what may have future applications on the design of magnetic devices.

Cerdanyola del Vallès, 31st March 2023 A non-saturated ferromagnetic material exhibits a non-uniform magnetization, forming a mosaic of magnetic domains with different magnetizations. The separation between these domains, domain walls, often intersect which results in exotic magnetization distributions called magnetic singularities. A particular type of magnetic singularities, Bloch points, are the focus of the study performed by researchers from Oviedo University and ALBA Synchrotron, and can be visualized in figure panels b and c.

The work, published at Communications Physics, described how the magnetization behaves around these Bloch points. At their location, the magnetization vectors cancel one another since they point oppositely (-> <- or <- ->), but around them they form complex patterns as the ones shown in figure at panels b and c, with vortex distribution.

A further description of the Bloch singularities is based on analogies with classical electrostatics. The converging and diverging magnetizations remind the electric fields of negative and positive point charges and lead to the concept of emergent magnetic field that, in complete analogy to electric field and electrical charge, allows to define a magnetic charge Q. Within this vision, Bloch points are described as magnetic monopoles of topological magnetic charges Q that create the emergent field Be.

Read more on the ALBA webiste

Image: Scientist at work on the MISTRAL beamline

Researchers identify new material for creating electronic devices

A multidisciplinary research team is developing more efficient and environmentally friendly processes to build light-emitting diodes with the help of the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan.

Dr. Simon Trudel, professor in chemistry at the University of Calgary and director of the university’s Nanoscience Program, said his team has been studying ways to use amorphous materials to build better “optoelectronic devices” such as organic photovoltaic cells or organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), which make possible digital display TV screens, computer monitors and smartphones.

By using a technique called X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (XAS) at the CLS, Trudel’s team was able to precisely examine the structure of the materials they were experimenting with to create more efficient electronic cells.

Trudel’s team focused on one of the interior layers of the diode called the hole-transport layer, which regulates the movement of electrons — and electrical energy — in a device. They identified an amorphous vanadium oxide compound that could be used for the hole-transfer layer but did not require the standard-but-intense heat treatments to crystallize the material.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Digital displays