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

Scientists explore how slow release fertilizer behaves in soil

Testing soil samples at the Canadian Light Source has helped a University of Saskatchewan soil scientist understand how tripolyphosphate (TPP), a slow release form of phosphorus fertilizer, works in the soil as a plant nutrient for much longer periods than previously thought.

Jordan Hamilton says the research also has implications for ongoing efforts by U of S soil scientists to use phosphorous-rich materials to clean up contaminated petroleum sites.

Hamilton, now a post-doctoral fellow working within U of S professor Derek Peak’s Environmental Soil Chemistry group, had a chapter of his PhD thesis, “Chemical speciation and fate of tripolyphosphate after application to a calcareous soil,” published earlier this year in the online journal Geochemical Transactions.

TPP needs to break down into a simpler form of phosphate in order to be used as a nutrient by plants. In most types of soil, the belief was that TPP would break down right away, says Hamilton.

“I would definitely say the biggest surprise is how quickly the TPP adsorbed (attached itself) to mineral sources, especially in these calcium-rich soils,” he said. “For the longer term, it was surprising to see it persist.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

Garnet gemstones contain secrets of our seismic past

Somewhere in the world an earthquake is occurring. In general, it will be a small tremor, an earthquake of magnitude two or lower, which humans cannot even feel. However when a major earthquake occurs, of magnitude 7 or above, it can cause devastating damage, events like tsunamis, and loss of life. These type of quakes, like the 2011 event in Japan and 2015 Nepalese events, happen around 20 times each year worldwide.

Large earthquakes tend to occur in subduction zones, such as the so-called Ring of Fire, where tectonic plates meet and one is bent and forced underneath the other, into the mantle of the earth. As well as leading to earthquakes, subduction also causes the composition and structure of the rock itself to become altered, in a process called high-pressure/low temperature metamorphism.

Metamorphism can take a variety of forms, in a number of different rocks, but one that is of particular interest is a type called rhythmic major-element zoning, in the mineral garnet. If found it can be a sign that subduction has occurred, and it can act as a record of seismicity in the crust of our Earth.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Support for HZB’s future and call for rapid planning of Bessy III

The Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) has received an evaluation of “excellent” in a review of science programmes undertaken at all Helmholtz Research Centres.

This provides the foundation for future financing of HZB.
Two committees of leading international scientists visited the HZB for a week each at the beginning of this year. They evaluated the HZB’s contributions to the Helmholtz programmes in the research areas of “Matter” and “Energy”. Now the written evaluations are available. The team spirit of all employees involved in the HZB was particularly emphasised.

The report states that the HZB and the Helmholtz Association have made decisions characterised by vision. The right course had been set both in terms of infrastructure and in recruiting people. The HZB can rely on highly competent, committed employees at all levels.

All research programmes of the HZB have received an evaluation of “excellent”. The HZB contributions to the MML programme (From Matter to Materials and Life) focussing on the use of photons are considered to be leading, with all of its participating groups receiving the top marks of “Outstanding” or “Excellent”. The Renewable Energies (RE) and the Future Information Technologies (FIT) programmes, the instrumentation at the BESSY II synchrotron (some of which is unique), and the BER II research reactor were likewise evaluated highly.

>Read more on the Bessy II at HZB website

Image: The review panel of the research field “Matter” visited the HZB on 11th January 2018.
Credit: HZB/J. Bierbaum

 

 

Writing and deleting magnets with lasers

Scientists * have found a way to write and delete magnets in an alloy using a laser beam – a surprising effect.

* at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) together with colleagues from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, USA

The reversibility of the process opens up new possibilities in the fields of material processing, optical technology, and data storage.
Researchers of the HZDR, an independent German research laboratory, studied an alloy of iron and aluminum. It is interesting as a prototype material because subtle changes to its atomic arrangement can completely transform its magnetic behavior. “The alloy possesses a highly ordered structure, with layers of iron atoms that are separated by aluminum atomic layers. When a laser beam destroys this order, the iron atoms are brought closer together and begin to behave like magnets,” says HZDR physicist Rantej Bali.

Bali and his team prepared a thin film of the alloy on top of transparent magnesia through which a laser beam was shone on the film. When they, together with researchers of the HZB, directed a well-focused laser beam with a pulse of 100 femtoseconds (a femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second) at the alloy, a ferromagnetic area was formed. Shooting laser pulses at the same area again – this time at reduced laser intensity – was then used to delete the magnet.

>Read more on the Bessy II at HZB website

Image: Laser light for writing and erasing information – a strong laser pulse disrupts the arrangement of atoms in an alloy and creates magnetic structures (left). A second, weaker, laser pulse allows the atoms to return to their original lattice sites (right). (Find the entire image here)
Credit: Sander Münster / HZDR

Insights into the development of more effective anti-tumour drug

Natural killer cells are powerful weapons our body’s immune systems count on to fight infection and combat diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, and lupus. Finding ways to spark these potent cells into action could lead to more effective cancer treatments and vaccines.

While several chemical compounds have shown promise stimulating a type of natural killer cells, invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT) cells in animal models, their ability to activate human iNKT cells has been limited.

Now, an international team of top immunologists, structural biologists, and chemists published in Cell Chemical Biology the creation of a new compound that appears to have the properties researchers have been looking for. The research was co-led by Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute’s (BDI) Dr Jérôme Le Nours, University of Connecticut’s Professor Amy Howell and Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Dr Steve Porcelli. Dr Le Nours used the Micro Crystallography beamline (MX2) at the Australian Synchrotron as part of the study.

The compound – a modified version of an earlier synthesized ligand – is highly effective in activating human iNKT cells. It is also selective – encouraging iNKT cells to release a specific set of proteins known as Th1 cytokines, which stimulate anti-tumour immunity.

>Read more on the Australian Synchrotron website

Image: 3D structure of proteins behind interaction of new drug that stimulates immune response to cancer cells. (Entire image here)

Toward control of spin states for molecular electronics

Tungsten accumulation in bone raises health concerns

McGill University scientists have identified exposure to tungsten as problematic after they determined how and where high levels of the metal accumulate and remain in bone.

“Our research provides further evidence against the long-standing perception that tungsten is inert and non-toxic,” said Cassidy VanderSchee, a PhD student and a member of a McGill research group headed by chemistry professor Scott Bohle.

Tungsten is a hard metal with a high melting point and, when combined with other metals and used as an alloy, it’s also very flexible.

Because of these properties and under the assumption that tungsten is non-toxic, it has been tested for use in medical implants, including arterial stents and hip replacements, in radiation shields to protect tissue during radiation therapy, and in some drugs. Tungsten is found in ammunition as well as in tools used for machining and cutting other metals.

Tungsten also occurs naturally in groundwater where deposits of the mineral are found. Exposure to high levels of tungsten in drinking water in Fallon, Nevada, was investigated for a possible link with childhood leukemia in the early 2000s. This investigation lead scientists to question the long-held belief that exposure to tungsten is safe and prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. to nominate tungsten for toxicology and carcinogenesis studies.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Cassidy VenderSchee

Solution to plastic pollution on the horizon

Engineering a unique plastic-degrading enzyme

The inner workings of a recently discovered bacterium with a fascinating ability to use plastic as an energy source have been recently revealed in PNAS. The world’s unique Long-Wavelength Macromolecular Crystallography (MX) beamline here at Diamond Light Source was used to successfully solve the structure of the bacterial enzyme responsible for chopping up the plastic. This newly evolved enzyme could be the key to tackling the worldwide problem of plastic waste.

Plastic pollution is a global threat that desperately needs addressing. Plastics are rarely biodegradable and they can remain in the environment for centuries. One of the most abundant plastics that contributes hugely to this dire situation is poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET).

PET is used largely in textiles, where it is commonly referred to as polyester, but it is also used as packaging for liquids and foodstuffs. In fact, PET’s excellent water-repellent properties led to it being the plastic of choice for soft drink bottles. However, once plastic bottles are discarded in the environment the water resistance of PET means that they are highly resistant to natural biodegradation. PET bottles can linger for hundreds of years and plastic waste like this will accumulate over time unless a solution is found to degrade them.

A recent breakthrough came in the discovery of a unique bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, which was found feeding on waste from an industrial PET recycling facility. PET has only been widely used since the 1970s, so the bacterium had evolved at breakneck speed to be able to take advantage of the new food source.

The bacterium had the amazing ability to degrade PET and use it to provide carbon for energy. Central to this ability was the production of a PET-digesting enzyme, known as PETase.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

 

Success in clinical trials driving a shift in the treatment of blood cancers

The Australian Synchrotron is proud to be growing Australia’s capacity for innovative drug development, facilitating the advance of world-class disease and drug research through to local drug trials. Recent success in clinical trials of Venetoclax, the chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) drug developed by researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and two international pharmaceutical companies is driving a major shift in the treatment of a range of blood cancers, according to a media information from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

>Read more on the Australian Synchrotron website

 

Scientists use machine learning to speed discovery of metallic glass

In a new report, they combine artificial intelligence and accelerated experiments to discover potential alternatives to steel in a fraction of the time.

Blend two or three metals together and you get an alloy that usually looks and acts like a metal, with its atoms arranged in rigid geometric patterns.

But once in a while, under just the right conditions, you get something entirely new: a futuristic alloy called metallic glass that’s amorphous, with its atoms arranged every which way, much like the atoms of the glass in a window. Its glassy nature makes it stronger and lighter than today’s best steel, plus it stands up better to corrosion and wear.

Even though metallic glass shows a lot of promise as a protective coating and alternative to steel, only a few thousand of the millions of possible combinations of ingredients have been evaluated over the past 50 years, and only a handful developed to the point that they may become useful.

Now a group led by scientists at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Northwestern University has reported a shortcut for discovering and improving metallic glass – and, by extension, other elusive materials – at a fraction of the time and cost.

>Read more on the SLAC website

Image: Fang Ren, who developed algorithms to analyze data on the fly while a postdoctoral scholar at SLAC, at a Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource beamline where the system has been put to use.
Credit: Dawn Harmer/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Gold protein clusters could be used as environmental and health detectors

Peng Zhang and his collaborators study remarkable, tiny self-assembling clusters of gold and protein that glow a bold red. And they’re useful: protein-gold nanoclusters could be used to detect harmful metals in water or to identify cancer cells in the body.
“These structures are very exciting but are very, very hard to study. We tried many different tools, but none worked,” says Zhang, a Dalhousie University professor.

Peng Zhang and his collaborators study remarkable, tiny self-assembling clusters of gold and protein that glow a bold red. And they’re useful: protein-gold nanoclusters could be used to detect harmful metals in water or to identify cancer cells in the body.

“These structures are very exciting but are very, very hard to study. We tried many different tools, but none worked,” says Zhang, a Dalhousie University professor.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: The protein-gold structure. The protein, which both builds and holds in place the gold cluster, is shown in grey.

Shedding new light on laser additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing (AM, also known as 3D printing) allows us to create incredibly complex shapes, which would not be possible using traditional manufacturing techniques. However, objects created using AM have different properties from traditional manufacturing routes, which is sometimes a disadvantage.

Laser additive manufacturing (LAM) uses a laser to fuse together metallic, ceramic or other powders into complex 3D shapes, layer by layer. The cooling rates are extremely rapid, and since they are unlike conventional processes we don’t know the optimal conditions to obtain the best properties, delaying the uptake of LAM in the production of safety-critical engineering structures, such as turbine blades, energy storage and biomedical devices. We need a method to see inside the process of LAM to better understand and optimise the laser-matter interaction and powder consolidation mechanisms.

Based in the Research Complex at Harwell, a team of researchers have worked with scientists at I12, the Joint Engineering Environment Processing (JEEP) beamline and the Central Laser Facility to build a laser additive manufacturing machine which operates on a beamline, allowing you to see into the heart of the process, revealing the underlying physical phenomena during LAM.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Picture: The Additive Manufacturing Team from the Research Complex at Harwell on the Joint Engineering Environment Processing (JEEP, I12) beamline. The Laser Additive Manufacturing Process Replicator (or LAMPR) on the right is used to reveal the underlying physical phenomena during LAM.

New Diamond SESAME Rutherford training programme underway

First four fellows welcomed to new training programme

Diamond has welcomed the first four fellows on the newly created Diamond SESAME Rutherford Fellowship Training Programme. The result of a £1.5 million grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Diamond will use the funding to expand its training and development support of SESAME, a unique Middle East project.

Up to 25 delegates will benefit from training in areas of science and engineering associated with the construction and operation of SESAME (Synchrotron light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) in Jordan. The Middle East’s first major international research centre, the SESAME light source involves members from Cyprus, Egypt, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.

Andrew Harrison, CEO of Diamond, explains, “SESAME represents a unique project for the Middle East region because of the excellent opportunity to stimulate and support scientific and technical activity, training and engagement in the region.  Because SESAME focuses on areas of local importance – such as water supply, energy, health and the environment – we are keen to nurture new talent and share our skills. This significant grant will enable us to build stronger links.”

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Fellows, Mentors and Programme Support
Credit: Diamond Light Source

Sending electrons on a rollercoaster ride

A first-of-its-kind x-ray instrument for frontier research with high-brightness x-rays is now in operation at Argonne National Laboratory. The new device utilizes a unique superconducting technology that speeds electrons on a path much like that of a rollercoaster.

The insertion device (ID), called a Helical Superconducting Undulator (HSCU), was designed at the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory. The device has three primary advantages over other types of IDs for producing high-brightness x-rays: (1) it generates a stronger magnetic field than other IDs; (2) it allows researchers to select a single energy from the x-ray beam without using any x-ray optics; and (3) it produces an x-ray beam with circular polarization. Argonne developed the helical undulator with $2 million in funding from the DOE Office of Science.

>Read more on the Advanced Photon Source website

Image: Matthew Kasa and Susan Bettenhausen of the Advanced Photon Source (APS) Accelerator Division Magnetic Devices Group put the finishing touches on installation of the Helical Superconducting Undulator in Sector 7 of the APS storage ring.

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