First ever images of fuel debris fallout particles from Fukushima

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

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

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

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

Sakura Pascarelli appointed scientific director at European XFEL

Italian physicist will be responsible for scientific development of hard X-ray instruments

The Italian physicist Dr. Sakura Pascarelli will be the new scientific director at European XFEL. Pascarelli will join European XFEL on 1 September from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, ESRF in Grenoble, France. She succeeds Andreas Schwarz who retired at the end of 2018. As one of three scientific directors, Pascarelli will be responsible for the four short-waved hard X-ray instruments at European XFEL: FXE for studying extremely fast processes, SPB/SFX for investigating biomolecules and biological samples, HED for studying matter under extreme pressures and temperatures, and MID for investigating nanostructures or irregularly ordered materials such as glass, liquids and biological substances. In addition, Pascarelli will also be responsible for developing the scientific research program for these experiment stations.

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: Sakura Pascarelli
Credit: Chantal Argoud (ESRF)

Clear view of “Robo” neuronal receptor opens door for new cancer drugs

During brain development, billions of neuron nerve cells must find accurate pathways in the brain in order to form trillions of neuronal circuits enabling us to enjoy cognitive, sensory and emotional wellbeing.

To achieve this remarkable precision, migrating neurons use special protein receptors that sense the environment around them and guide the way so these neurons stay on the right path. In a new study published in Cell, researchers from Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University in Israel, EMBL Grenoble in France and University of Exeter in the UK report on their discovery of the intricate molecular mechanism that allows a key guidance receptor, “Robo”, to react to signals in its environment.

One of the most important protein signaling systems that guide neurons consists of the cell surface receptor “Robo” and its external guidance cue, “Slit”. “Slit and Robo can be identified in virtually all animals with a nervous system, from a 1 mm-long nematode all the way to humans,” explains researcher Yarden Opatowsky, associate professor and head of the Laboratory of Structural Biology at Bar-Ilan University and who led the research.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: A surface representation of the crystal structure of the extracellular portion of human Robo2. The yellow region represents the domain where dimerisation takes place. Here, we see it blocked by the other domains, meaning dimerisation cannot take place and that Robo2 is inactivated.
Credit: Y. Opatowsky.

Unleashing perovskites’ potential for solar cells

Perovskites — a broad category of compounds that share a certain crystal structure — have attracted a great deal of attention as potential new solar-cell materials because of their low cost, flexibility, and relatively easy manufacturing process. But much remains unknown about the details of their structure and the effects of substituting different metals or other elements within the material. Now, researchers using the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Photon Source (APS) have been able to decipher a key aspect of the behavior of perovskites made with different formulations: With certain additives there is a kind of “sweet spot” where sufficient amounts will enhance performance and beyond which further amounts begin to degrade it. The findings were detailed in the journal Science.
Conventional solar cells made of silicon must be processed at temperatures above 1,400 degrees Celsius, using expensive equipment that limits their potential for production scale-up. In contrast, perovskites can be processed in a liquid solution at temperatures as low as 100 degrees, using inexpensive equipment. What’s more, perovskites can be deposited on a variety of substrates, including flexible plastics, enabling a variety of new uses that would be impossible with thicker, stiffer silicon wafers.

>Read more on the Advanced Photon Source (APS) website

Image: Perovskite-based solar cells are flexible, lightweight, can be produced cheaply, and could someday bring down the cost of solar energy. Shown here is the type of perovskite solar cell measured at the CNM/XSD Hard X-ray Nanoprobe at the APS.
Credit: Rob Felt

Scientists develop printable water sensor

X-ray investigation reveals functioning of highly versatile copper-based compound

A new, versatile plastic-composite sensor can detect tiny amounts of water. The 3d printable material, developed by a Spanish-Israeli team of scientists, is cheap, flexible and non-toxic and changes its colour from purple to blue in wet conditions. The researchers lead by Pilar Amo-Ochoa from the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) used DESY’s X-ray light source PETRA III to understand the structural changes within the material that are triggered by water and lead to the observed colour change. The development opens the door to the generation of a family of new 3D printable functional materials, as the scientists write in the journal Advanced Functional Materials (early online view).

>Read more on the PETRA III at DESY website

Image: When dried, for example in a water-free solvent, the sensor material turns purple.
Credit: UAM, Verónica García Vegas

How to catch a magnetic monopole in the act

Berkeley Lab-led study could lead to smaller memory devices, microelectronics, and spintronics

A research team led by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has created a nanoscale “playground” on a chip that simulates the formation of exotic magnetic particles called monopoles. The study – published recently in Science Advances – could unlock the secrets to ever-smaller, more powerful memory devices, microelectronics, and next-generation hard drives that employ the power of magnetic spin to store data.

Follow the ‘ice rules’
For years, other researchers have been trying to create a real-world model of a magnetic monopole – a theoretical magnetic, subatomic particle that has a single north or south pole. These elusive particles can be simulated and observed by manufacturing artificial spin ice materials – large arrays of nanomagnets that have structures analogous to water ice – wherein the arrangement of atoms isn’t perfectly symmetrical, leading to residual north or south poles.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source at Berkeley Lab website

Image: Full image here. This  nanoscale “playground” on a chip uses nanomagnets to simulate the formation of exotic magnetic particles called “monopoles.” Credit: Farhan/Berkeley Lab

Mechanism of thiopurine resistance in acute lymphoblastic leukemia

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is an aggressive lymphoid malignancy that is currently the leading cause of cancer in pediatric patients1. Despite intensified chemotherapy regimens, the cure rates of ALL only approaches 40%2. Specific mutations in the cytosolic 5’-nucleotidase II (NT5C2) gene are present in about 20% of relapsed pediatric T-ALL and 3-10% of relapsed B-precursor ALL cases3,4.

NT5C2 is a cytosolic nucleotidase that maintains intracellular nucleotide pool levels by exporting excess purine nucleotides out of the cell5.  NT5C2 can also dephosphorylate and inactivate the metabolites of the 6-thioguanine (6-TG) and 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP) commonly used to treat ALL6. Thus, relapse associated activating mutations in NT5C2 confer resistance to 6-MP and 6-TG chemotherapy. Upon allosteric activation, a disordered region of NT5C2 adopts a helical configuration (helix A) and facilitates substrate binding and catalysis (Fig. 1a)7.  Mutations in this regulatory region of NT5C2 have been modeled to strongly activate NT5C2.  However, the majority of NT5C2 mutations associated with relapsed ALL do not occur in this region.
To better understand the mechanisms by which these gain-of function NT5C2 mutations lead to increased nucleotidase activity, Dieck, Tzoneva, Forouhar and colleagues investigated additional regulatory elements that may control NT5C2 activation.  They collected crystallographic data for several mutant NT5C2 homotetramers at SSRL (NT5C2-537X D52N/D407A in active state (BL9-2), NT5C2-Q523X D52N in basal state and in active state (BL14-1) and full-length NT5C2 R39Q/D52N in basal state (BL12-2)) and used the structural information as a guide in the understanding of the mechanistic details.

>Read more on the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource website

Figure (a) A ribbon diagram of the active structure of NT5C2 WT, in which the allosteric helix A (αA) is shown in dark purple. The N and C termini amino acids (S4 and S488), and the termini amino acids (L402 and R421) of the disordered region in the arm segment are also labeled. Panels b and c shows ribbon and surface (for subunit B) depictions of basal (b) and active dimers (c) of WT.

Structural basis of neurosteroid anesthetic action on GABAA receptors

Type A γ-aminobutyric acid receptors (GABAARs) control neuronal excitability1. They are targets for the treatment of neurological diseases and disorders and also for general anesthetics. The underlying mechanisms of these drugs’ action on GABAARs remain to be determined.
One of the mechanisms is to potentiate function of GABAARs via binding to the transmembrane domain (TMD)2. Ample experimental evidence suggests that the TMD of GABAARs harbors sites for the primary actions of general anesthetics and neurosteroids. The TMD plays an essential role in functional transitions among the resting, activated, and desensitized states of these Cl-conducting channels.
Alphaxalone (5α-pregnan-3α-ol-11,20 dione) is a potent neurosteroid anesthetic. The anxiolytic, anticonvulsant, analgesic, and sedative-hypnotic effects of alphaxalone have been linked to its potentiation of GABA-evoked currents and direct activation of GABAARs3. However, the data about the alphaxalone binding site in GABAARs and the underlying structural basis of alphaxalone’s action are sparse.

>Read more on the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource at SLAC

Figure: Alphaxalone-induced structural changes at the bottom of the TMD (a) Bottom view of overlaid TM1-TM2 structures of the apo (orange) and alphaxalone-bound (cyan) α1GABAAR chimera. (b) Side view of overlaid structures of apo (principal subunit – gold; complementary subunit – orange) and alphaxalone-bound (principal subunit – blue; complementary subunit – cyan) α1GABAAR chimera. For clarity, only TM2 and TM3 are shown in the principal subunit and only TM1 and TM2 are shown in the complementary subunit. The arrow highlights structural perturbations originating from the alphaxalone binding site near W246 through the TM1-TM2 linker to the pore-lining residues P253 (-2′) and V257 (2′). (c) The 2FO-FC electron density maps (blue mesh, contoured at 1 σ) covering TM1-TM2 in the apo (left) and alphaxalone-bound (right) α1GABAAR chimera. The sidechains are shown only for residues W246 to V257 (2′).

Structural insights into tiny bacterial harpoons

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

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

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

SESAME fully powered by renewable energy

SESAME becomes the world’s first large accelerator complex to be fully powered by renewable energy.

Today (26 February 2019), a ceremony was held to mark the official inauguration of the solar power plant of SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East).
Constructed on grounds next to JAEC (Jordan Atomic Energy Commission) that is located some 30kms from SESAME, electricity from the solar power plant will be supplied by an on-grid photovoltaic system having a total power capacity of 6.48 MW, which will amply satisfy SESAME’s needs for several years.
Thanks to this power plant SESAME is now not only the first synchrotron light facility in the region, but also the world’s first large accelerator complex to be fully powered by renewable energy. “As in the case of all accelerators, SESAME is  in dire need of energy, and as the number of its users increases so will its electricity bill” said the Director of SESAME, Khaled Toukan. “Given the very high cost of electricity in Jordan, with this solar power plant the Centre becomes sustainable” he continued to say.
The power plant, which uses monocrystalline solar panels, was built by the Jordanian company Kawar Energy under the supervision of the consultancy firm Consolidated Consultants Group representing the owner, SESAME. Power from the solar power plant will be transmitted to the grid through the wheeling mechanism by JEPCO (Jordan Electric Power Company). The power that the solar power plant sends to the grid will be accounted for to the credit of SESAME.

>Read more on the SESAME website

Image: SESAME’s solar power plant.
Credit: SESAME.

Meteorites suggest galvanic origins for martian organic carbon

The nature of carbon on Mars has been the subject of intense research since NASA’s Viking-era missions in the 1970s, due to the link between organic (carbon-containing) molecules and the detection of extraterrestrial life. Analyses of Martian meteorites marked the first confirmation that macromolecular carbon (MMC)—large chains of carbon and hydrogen—are a common occurrence in Mars rocks. More recently, researchers have applied the lessons taken from studies of meteorites to the data being gathered by the Curiosity rover, finding similar MMC signatures on Mars itself. Now, the central question is “what is the synthesis mechanism of this abiotic organic carbon?”

>Read more about on the Advanced Light Source website

Image: A high-resolution transmission electron micrograph (scale bar = 50 nm) of a grain from a Martian meteorite. Reminiscent of a long dinner fork, organic carbon layers were found between the intact “tines.” This texture was created when the volcanic minerals of the Martian rock interacted with a salty brine and became the anode and cathode of a naturally occurring battery in a corrosion reaction. This reaction would then have enough energy—under certain conditions—to synthesize organic carbon.
Credit: Andrew Steele