Using soil to combat climate change

Researchers are using synchrotron light to better understand the impact of climate change on more than three trillion metric tonnes of soil carbon around the world.

Using the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan, scientists from across the United States investigated the plant root mechanisms that control long-term storage of carbon in deep soil. Their findings will have ramifications for global industries such as agriculture, which have touted the benefits of carbon sequestration as their contribution to fighting climate change.

“The significance of our work is we not only show that plants are conduits of carbon into the soil, but the roots also regulate how much carbon the deep soil can store or lose,” said Dr. Marco Keiluweit, a biogeochemist at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture in the University of Massachusetts.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Rhizogenic weathering extract; (full image here)

Analyzing poppies to make better drugs

A team of researchers from the University of Calgary has uncovered new information about a class of plant enzymes that could have implications for the pharmaceutical industry. In a paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the scientists explain how they revealed molecular details of an enzyme class that is central to the synthesis of many widely used pharmaceuticals, including the painkillers codeine and morphine.  

The team used the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to better understand how the enzyme behaves, which is crucial for unleashing its potential to make novel medicines. “Until this study, we didn’t know the key structural details of the enzyme. We learned from the structure of the enzyme bound to the product how the methylation reaction locks the product into a certain stereochemistry. It was completely unknown how the enzyme did that before we determined this structure,” corresponding author Dr. Kenneth Ng explained.

Stereochemistry is an important concept when it comes to safety and efficacy in drug design. A molecule can have a few different arrangements—similar to how your left hand is a mirror image of your right hand. These arrangements can lead to very different effects.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: group photo of some of the researchers involved with this project. From left to right: Ken Ng (Professor and corresponding author), Jeremy Morris (PhD graduate and second author), Dean Lang (PhD student and first author), and Peter Facchini (Professor, CSO of Willow Biosciences and senior author).

New research possibilities at NanoMAX

X-rays can penetrate materials and are therefore useful for studying chemical processes as they occur inside reactors, cells, and batteries. A common ingredient in such chemical systems is metal nanoparticles, which are often used as catalysts for important reactions. As the NanoMAX beamline provides a very small X-ray focal spot, single nanoparticles can in principle be studied as they perform their catalytic functions.

In this paper, we show that gold nanoparticles sitting inside an electrochemical cell can be imaged at NanoMAX. These preliminary results come from nanoparticles around 60 nm (60 millionths of a millimetre) in size, and we show that even smaller particles could be studied. If successful, future experiments will allow “filming” nanoparticles as they catalyze reactions in real-time, and give new understanding of how catalysis works. That could in turn help design new materials for energy conversion, chemical production, and water purification.

>Read more on the MAX IV Laboratory
Image (extract, full image here): Coherent Bragg imaging of 60 nm Au nanoparticles under electrochemical control at the NanoMAX beamline

Analysis of fingermarks with synchrotron techniques provide new insights

A new study by researchers from Curtin University using the infrared (IR) and X-ray fluorescence microscopy (XFM) beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron has provided a better understanding of the chemical and elemental composition of latent fingermarks.

The findings by lead researchers Prof Simon Lewis and Dr Mark Hackett may provide opportunities to optimise current fingermark detection methods or identify new detection strategies for forensic purposes.
Latent fingermarks are generally described as those requiring some process to make them readily visible to the eye. These fingermarks are typically made up of natural skin secretions, along with contaminants (such as food or cosmetics) picked up from various surfaces.
The detection of latent fingermarks is often crucial in forensic investigations, but this is not always a straightforward task. “We know that there are issues in detecting fingermarks as they get older, and also under certain environmental conditions”, said Lewis, whose main research focus is forensic exchange evidence.

“In order to improve our ability to detect fingermarks, we need to understand the nature of fingermark residue, and this includes both the organic and inorganic components. Many chemical components in fingermark residue are present at very low levels, and we don’t know how they are distributed within the fingermark. This is what took us to the Australian Synchrotron.”

>Read more on the Australian Synchrotron at ANSTO website

A new generation of anti-malaria drugs


Malaria is endemic to large areas of Africa, Asia and South America and annually kills more than 400,000 people, a majority of whom are children under age 5, with hundreds of millions of new infections every year. Although artemisinin-based drug combinations are available to treat malaria, reports from Southeast Asia of treatment failures are raising concerns about drug resistance spreading to Africa. Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon because there are several new antimalarial drug candidates undergoing clinical testing as well as other promising drug targets that are under investigation.
An international research team has for the first time determined the atomic structure of a protein kinase called PKG in Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria—a finding that potentially will help create a new generation of anti-malarial drugs and advance fundamental research. PKG[i] plays essential roles in the developmental stages of the parasite’s complex life cycle, so understanding its structure is key to developing malaria-fighting therapies that specifically target PKG and not other human enzymes, according to researcher Dr. Charles Calmettes.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: PKG crystal.

Pirbright Institute grants a new licence for FMDV vaccine development

The Pirbright Institute and its research partners have granted MSD Animal Health an exclusive commercial licence for a new, effective and affordable vaccine to protect livestock against several serotypes of foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV). The new vaccine is more stable than current foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) vaccines and is less reliant on a cold-chain during vaccine distribution – characteristics that give the vaccine greater potential for helping to relieve the burden placed on regions where the disease is endemic in large parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. These developments have been possible, thanks to a long-standing collaboration between Diamond Light Source, Pirbright, the University of Oxford, the University of Reading and MSD Animal Health, and the vaccine has been developed over the years from basic science to animal trials. This work has been supported by funding from the Wellcome Trust to speed up commercialisation.

Professor David Stuart, Life Sciences Director at Diamond Light Source and MRC Professor in Structural Biology at the University of Oxford, noted:

We have been working to achieve something close to the holy grail of vaccines. Instead of traditional methods of vaccine development, using infectious virus as its basis, our team synthetically created empty protein shells to imitate the protein coat that forms the strong outer layer of the virus. Diamond’s visualisation capabilities and the expertise of Oxford University in structural analysis and computer simulation, enabled us to visualise in detail something invisible in a normal microscope and to enhance the design, atom by atom, of the empty shells. The key thing is that unlike the traditional FMDV vaccines, there is no chance that the empty shell vaccine could revert to an infectious form. The licence that has just been granted suggests that the work will have a broad and enduring impact on vaccine development.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Study reveals ‘radical’ wrinkle in forming complex carbon molecules in space

Unique experiments at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source shine a light on a new pathway for carbon chemistry to evolve in space.

A team of scientists has discovered a new possible pathway toward forming carbon structures in space using a specialized chemical exploration technique at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). The team’s research has now identified several avenues by which ringed molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, can form in space. The latest study is a part of an ongoing effort to retrace the chemical steps leading to the formation of complex carbon-containing molecules in deep space. PAHs – which also occur on Earth in emissions and soot from the combustion of fossil fuels – could provide clues to the formation of life’s chemistry in space as precursors to interstellar nanoparticles. They are estimated to account for about 20 percent of all carbon in our galaxy, and they have the chemical building blocks needed to form 2D and 3D carbon structures.

>Read more on the ALS at Berkeley Lab website

Image: This composite image shows an illustration of a carbon-rich red giant star (middle) warming an exoplanet (bottom left) and an overlay of a newly found chemical pathway that could enable complex carbons to form near these stars.
Credits: ESO/L. Calçada; Berkeley Lab, Florida International University, and University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Two years of user operation in numbers

1200 users, 60 experiments and 6 petabytes of data since operation began.

September 1 marks two years since the official opening and start of user operation at European XFEL. With the scheduled expansion from two to six operational instruments, the facility has expanded its experimental capacity and possibilities significantly during the past two years. At the same time, both the performance of the X-ray free-electron laser and instruments was continually improved. The scientific community shows strong interest in experiments at the new facility, with a total of 363 submitted proposals during this period, of which 98 were awarded beamtime. In total, 1200 users from across the world came to Schenefeld for their research. As the facility continues to be developed, even more time will be available for user experiments in the future.

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: Laser installation on the European XFEL campus in 2017 highlighting the five underground tunnels.
Credit: The European XFEL (Germany)

The active role of collagen in building bones

We use our skeleton every day, but our mental model of our bones may look more like a glow-in-the-dark Halloween costume, or a teaching skeleton hanging on a sitcom set, than true anatomy. While these common representations of skeletons focus on the sturdy aspects of bones, the structural frames of actual bones are built by a soft organic portion. To create bones, the human body precipitates calcium phosphate minerals using collagen, a long protein, as scaffolding. Our bodies mineralize calcium phosphate both inside and outside collagen-confined spaces, and scientists are still working to understand how the two types of mineralization occur. Recent research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) has investigated mineralization rates and shown that collagen structures reduce the energy barriers to mineralization by providing a substrate on which the calcium phosphate can precipitate. Since common bone diseases, such as osteoporosis, hinge on an abnormal calcium phosphate precipitation process, this improved understanding of the role of collagen in precipitation could lead to insight into the treatment of these diseases.

>Read more on the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab

Figure (extract, full image here) This scanning electron microscopy image shows calcium phosphate minerals nucleation in both extrafibrillar (purple colored image) and intrafibrillar (green colored image) spaces of collagen matrices. Without polyaspartic acid, extrafibrillar nucleation of calcium phosphate is dominant while with polyaspartic acid, intrafibrillar nucleation mainly occurs.

Research and tinkering – SwissFEL in 2019

The newest large research facility at the Paul Scherrer Institute, SwissFEL, has been completed. Regular operation began in January 2019.

Henrik Lemke, head of the SwissFEL Bernina research group in the Photon Science Division, gives a first interm report.

Mr. Lemke, you have just published a technical article in which you report on the experience so far with SwissFEL. How would you sum it up?

With SwissFEL, we are entering new territory at PSI. It is one of only five comparable facilities on this scale worldwide. This means we still need to gain experience, because we are doing a lot of things for the first time. On January 1 this year we began regular operation. Research groups from other institutions have already been here, and they have successfully conducted experiments with us, just like PSI researchers themselves. These were already a big success. In parallel to this operation, we are also further optimising the facility and the experimental setup. This will enable us to join ranks with the comparable facilities and, in addition, develop particular methods into specialities of SwissFEL.

>Read more on the SwissFEL website

Image: Lemke at the experiment station Bernina of SwissFEL
Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir Dzambegovic

Ultra-white beetle scales may be the key to more sustainable paint

An international team of researchers has managed to mimic the colour of the Cyphochilus beetle scales – one of the brightest whites in nature, thanks to the ESRF’s imaging capabilities. This could help the development of ultra-white, sustainable paints.

Cyphochilus beetle scales are one of the brightest whites in nature. Until now, researchers did not known how their ultra-white appearance is created. X-ray nanotomography experiments at the ESRF have shown that the nanostructure in their tiny scales creates the colour, not the use of pigment or dyes.
Andrew Parnell, from the University of Sheffield and corresponding author of the study said: “In the natural world, whiteness is usually created by a foamy Swiss cheese-like structure made of a solid interconnected network and air. Until now, how these structures form and develop and how they have evolved light-scattering properties has remained a mystery.”
The findings show that the foamy structure of the beetles’ scales has the right proportion of empty spaces, in a highly interconnected nano-network, which optimise the scattering of light – creating the ultra-white colouring.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Andrew Denison and Stephanie Burg in the experimental hutch of beamline ID16B. 

Analyzing the world’s oldest woddy plant fossil

Scientists investigate the early evolution of tissue systems in plants.

Mapping the evolution of life on Earth requires a detailed understanding of the fossil record, and scientists are using synchrotron-based technologies to look back—way, way back—at the cell structure and chemistry of the earliest known woody plant. Dr. Christine Strullu-Derrien and colleagues used the Canadian Light Source’s SM[1] beamline at the University of Saskatchewan to study Armoricaphyton chateaupannense, an extinct woody plant that is about 400 million years old. Their research focused on lignin, an organic compound in the plant tracheids, elongated cells that help transport water and mineral salts. Lignin makes the cells walls rigid and less water permeable, thereby improving the conductivity of their vascular system.
Strullu-Derrien, a scientific associate at the Natural History Museum in London, England and the Natural History Museum in Paris, France, had described A. chateaupannense some years ago and returned to it for this project.
“Studies have been done previously on Devonian plants but they were not woody,” she said. “A. chateaupannense is the earliest known woody plant and it’s preserved in both 2D form as flat carbonaceous films and 3D organo-mineral structures. This allows for comparison to be done between the two types of preservation,” she said.
Although the fossils used in the study were collected in the Armorican Massif, a geologically significant region of hills and flatlands in western France, Strullu-Derrien said early Devonian woody plants have also been found in New Brunswick and the Gaspé area in Quebec “although these are 10 million years younger than the French one.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: A, photograph of Armoricaphyton chateaupannense preserved in 2D as carbonaceous thin films. B, SEM image of a transverse section of an axis of a specimen of A. chateaupannense preserved in 3D showing the radially aligned tracheids.

Monitoring food safety of marine fishes

Research investigates ways to convert titanium dioxide into a new photoactive material in the visible light range.

The search for clean and renewable energy sources has intensified in recent years due to the increase in atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and the consequent increase in the average temperature of the planet. One such alternative source is the conversion of sunlight into electricity through photovoltaic panels. The efficiency in this conversion depends on the intrinsic properties of the materials used in the manufacturing of the panels, and it increases year by year with the discovery of new and better materials. As such, solar energy is expected to become one of the main sources of electric energy by the middle of this century, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is an abundant, nontoxic, biologically inert and chemically stable material, known primarily as a white pigment used in paints, cosmetics and even toothpastes. TiO2 is also often used in sunscreens since it is especially capable of absorbing radiation in the ultraviolet region. However, this same property severely limits the use of TiO2 for solar energy conversion, since the ultraviolet emission comprises only 5 to 8% of the total energy of the solar light. Can this TiO2 property be extended to the visible light region to increase the conversion of sunlight into electricity? To answer this question, Maria Pilar de Lara-Castells et al. [1] conducted an innovative research in which they discuss how a special treatment can change the optical properties of TiO2.

>Read more on the LNLS website

Image: Joakant (Pixabay)

Smarter experiments for faster materials discovery

Scientists created a new AI algorithm for making measurement decisions; autonomous approach could revolutionize scientific experiments.

A team of scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory designed, created, and successfully tested a new algorithm to make smarter scientific measurement decisions. The algorithm, a form of artificial intelligence (AI), can make autonomous decisions to define and perform the next step of an experiment. The team described the capabilities and flexibility of their new measurement tool in a paper published on August 14, 2019 in Nature Scientific Reports.

From Galileo and Newton to the recent discovery of gravitational waves, performing scientific experiments to understand the world around us has been the driving force of our technological advancement for hundreds of years. Improving the way researchers do their experiments can have tremendous impact on how quickly those experiments yield applicable results for new technologies.

>Read more on the NSLS-II at Brookhaven Lab website.

Image: (From left to right) Kevin Yager, Masafumi Fukuto, and Ruipeng Li prepared the Complex Materials Scattering (CMS) beamline at NSLS-II for a measurement using the new decision-making algorithm, which was developed by Marcus Noack (not pictured).

Metal particles abraded from tattooing needles travel inside the body

Allergic reactions are common side effects of tattoos and pigments have been blamed for this. Now researchers prove, for the first time, that particles, containing the allergens nickel and chromium, wear from the needle during the tattooing process, travel inside the body and could also induce allergies.

The number of tattooed people has increased substantially in recent years, with some countries revealing to have up to 24% of the population with a tattoo. Adverse reactions from tattoos are common and until now, researchers believed only inks were to blame.
“There is more to tattoos than meet the eye. It is not only about the cleanliness of the parlour, the sterilization of the equipment or even about the pigments. Now we find that the needle wear also has an impact in your body”, explains Hiram Castillo, one of the authors of the study and scientist at the ESRF.
Today, in a new study published in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology, scientists have shown that, surprisingly, chromium and nickel particles coming from tattoo needle wear are distributed towards the lymph nodes. Usually tattoo needles contain nickel (6–8%) and chromium (15–20%) both of which prompt a high rate of sensitization in the general population and may therefore play a role in tattoo allergies. Two years ago, the same team of researchers found that the pigments and their metal impurities are transported to the lymph nodes in a nanoform, where they can be found years after the placement of the tattoos.

>Read more on the ESRF website and watch the video below

Image: Ines Schreiver, first author (German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), Berlin, Germany), with Julie Villanova, ESRF scientist during experiments at the ESRF ID16B beamline.
Credit: ESRF

Particle accelerators drive decades of discoveries at Berkeley Lab and beyond

Berkeley Lab’s expertise in accelerator technologies has spiraled out from Ernest Lawrence’s earliest cyclotron to advanced compact accelerators.

Accelerators have been at the heart of the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) since its inception in 1931, and are still a driving force in the Laboratory’s mission and its R&D program. Ernest O. Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron, the first circular particle accelerator – and the development of progressively larger versions – led him to build on the hillside overlooking the UC Berkeley campus that is now Berkeley Lab’s home. A variety of large cyclotrons are in use today around the world, and new accelerator technologies continue to drive progress.
“Our work in accelerators and related technologies has shaped the growth and diversification of Berkeley Lab over its long history, and remains a vital core competency today,” said James Symons, associate laboratory director for Berkeley Lab’s Physical Sciences Area.

>Read more on the ALS at Berkeley Lab website

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