Ancient asteroid grains provide insight into the evolution of our solar system

The UK’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source, was used by a large, international collaboration to study grains collected from a near-Earth asteroid to further our understanding of the evolution of our solar system.

Researchers from the University of Leicester brought a fragment of the Ryugu asteroid to Diamond’s Nanoprobe beamline I14 where a special technique called X-ray Absorption Near Edge Spectroscopy (XANES) was used to map out the chemical states of the elements within the asteroid material, to examine its composition in fine detail. The team also studied the asteroid grains using an electron microscope at Diamond’s electron Physical Science Imaging Centre (ePSIC).

Julia Parker is the Principal Beamline Scientist for I14 at Diamond. She said:

The X-ray Nanoprobe allows scientists to examine the chemical structure of their samples at micron to nano lengthscales, which is complemented by the nano to atomic resolution of the imaging at ePSIC. It’s very exciting to be able to contribute to the understanding of these unique samples, and to work with the team at Leicester to demonstrate how the techniques at the beamline, and correlatively at ePSIC, can benefit future sample return missions.

The data collected at Diamond contributed to a wider study of the space weathering signatures on the asteroid. The pristine asteroid samples enabled the collaborators to explore how space weathering can alter the physical and chemical composition of the surface of carbonaceous asteroids like Ryugu.

The researchers discovered that the surface of Ryugu is dehydrated and that it is likely that space weathering is responsible. The findings of the study, published today in Nature Astronomy, have led the authors to conclude that asteroids that appear dry on the surface may be water-rich, potentially requiring revision of our understanding of the abundances of asteroid types and the formation history of the asteroid belt.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Image taken at E01 ePSIC of Ryugu serpentine and Fe oxide minerals.

Credit: ePSIC/University of Leicester.

Protein family shows how life adapted to oxygen

Cornell scientists have created an evolutionary model that connects organisms living in today’s oxygen-rich atmosphere to a time, billions of years ago, when Earth’s atmosphere had little oxygen – by analyzing ribonucleotide reductases (RNRs), a family of proteins used by all free-living organisms and many viruses to repair and replicate DNA.

“By understanding the evolution of these proteins, we can understand how nature adapts to environmental changes at the molecular level. In turn, we also learn about our planet’s past,” said Nozomi Ando, associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences and corresponding author of the study. “Comprehensive phylogenetic analysis of the ribonucleotide reductase family reveals an ancestral clade” published in eLife Digest Oct. 4.

Co-first authors of the study are Audrey Burnim and Da Xu, doctoral students in chemistry and chemical biology, and Matthew Spence, Research School of Chemistry, Australian National University, Canberra. Colin J. Jackson, professor of chemistry, Australian National University, Canberra, is a corresponding author.

This undertaking involved a large dataset of 6,779 RNR sequences; the phylogeny took several high-performance computers a combined seven months (1.4 million CPU hours) to calculate. Made possible by computing advances, the approach opens up a new way to study other diverse protein families that have evolutionary or medical significance.

RNRs have adapted to changes in the environment over billions of years to conserve their catalytic mechanism because of their essential role for all DNA-based life, Ando said. Her lab studies protein allostery – how proteins are able to change activity in response to the environment. The evolutionary information in a phylogeny gives us a way to study the relationship between the primary sequence of a protein and its three-dimensional structure, dynamics and function.

Read more on the CHESS website

Image: Tree inference on a ribonucleotide reductase (RNR) sequence dataset as included in the original report, “Comprehensive phylogenetic analysis of the ribonucleotide reductase family reveals an ancestral clade“.

First glimpse of intricate details of Little Foot’s life

In June 2019, an international team brought the complete skull of the 3.67-million-year-old ‘Little Foot’ Australopithecus skeleton, from South Africa to the UK and achieved unprecedented imaging resolution of its bony structures and dentition in an X-ray synchrotron-based investigation at Diamond. The X-ray work is highlighted in a new paper in e-Life, published today focusing on the inner craniodental features of ‘Little Foot’. The remarkable completeness and great age of the ‘Little Foot’ skeleton makes it a crucially important specimen in human origins research and a prime candidate for exploring human evolution through high-resolution virtual analysis.

To recover the smallest possible details from a fairly large and very fragile fossil, the team decided to image the skull using synchrotron X-ray micro computed tomography at the I12 beamline at Diamond, revealing new information about human evolution and origins. This paper outlines preliminary results of the X-ray synchrotron-based investigation of the dentition and bones of the skull (i.e., cranial vault and mandible).

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Fossil skull in Diamond’s beamline I12

Credit: Diamond Light Source

Coelacanth reveals new insights into skull evolution

A team of researchers, in conjunction with the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, presents the first observations of the development of the skull and brain in the living coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae.

The study, published in Nature, uses data from beamline ID19 and provides new insights into the biology of this iconic animal and the evolution of the vertebrate skull.
The coelacanth Latimeria is a marine fish closely related to tetrapods, four-limbed vertebrates including amphibians, mammals and reptiles. Coelacanths were thought to have been extinct for 70 million years, until the accidental capture of a living specimen by a South African fisherman in 1938. Eighty years after its discovery, Latimeria remains of scientific interest for understanding the origin of tetrapods and the evolution of their closest fossil relatives – the lobe-finned fishes.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Overall anterolateral view of the skull of the coelacanth foetus imaged on beamline ID19. The brain is in yellow.
Credit: H. Dutel et al.

Illuminating extinct plants generates new knowledge

By using infrared micro-spectroscopy at beamline D7 situated at the MAX III storage ring (closed December 2015) scientists from Lund University, Vilnius University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm have been able to identify molecular signatures of fossil leaves. Through the research the scientists have been able to establish relationships between 200-million-year-old plants based on their chemical fingerprints.

Read more on the MAX-IV website

Image: Leaves on a Gingko tree growing on the inner yard of MAX IV Laboratory in Lund. Credit: MAX-IV