Wax proves key to protecting crops from drought and frost

A team of researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) to show that cuticular wax—a waxy layer that covers exterior surfaces of plants, much like human skin—provides a barrier against low temperatures and dehydration.

While numerous studies have established the role of cuticular wax in impacting drought resistance, few studies have examined its role in plant frost resistance and even fewer have examined both, said Dr. Karen Tanino with the College of Agriculture and Bioresource at USask. Her team’s findings were published recently in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

The ultimate goal of the research is to provide plant breeders with information that enables them to more efficiently select superior genetic lines and develop more climate-resistant crops, said Tanino.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: The team studied a variety of Arabidopsis phenotypes during the project.

Unusual electronic properties taking shape

In a recent study, an international team led by researchers from The Pennsylvania State University in the US investigated the one-dimensional (1D) material tantalum selenide iodide (TaSe4 )2I. Its electronic properties had been theoretically predicted but not observed experimentally before the study conducted at the Bloch beamline. Evaporating iodine atoms turn out to drive unforeseen electronic changes.

Materials with unusual electronic properties such as charge density waves or topological states push the understanding of the fundamentals of quantum matter. They are also exciting candidates for the next generations of energy-efficient electronic and spintronic devices.

In the present study, the researchers found that the electronic properties of (TaSe4 )2I were different from the theoretical prediction. The band structure of a material can loosely be compared to a map of the material’s electronic properties. (TaSe4 )2I has something called Dirac bands, which is often found in this type of materials. The prediction said that the Dirac bands would split due to Weyl physics, which is not the case. The bands split with temperature, and the driver behind it is iodine atoms evaporating from the material’s surface.

Read more on the MAX IV website

Image: Surface charge induced Dirac band splitting in 1D material (TaSe4 )2I

How catalysts age

PSI researchers have developed a new tomography method with which they can measure chemical properties inside catalyst materials in 3-D extremely precisely and faster than before. The application is equally important for science and industry. The researchers published their results today in the journal Science Advances.

The material group of vanadium phosphorus oxides (VPOs) is widely used as a catalyst in the chemical industry. VPOs have been used in the production of maleic anhydride since the 1970s. Maleic anhydride in turn is the starting material for the production of various plastics, increasingly including biodegradable ones. In industry, the catalytic materials are typically used for several years, because they play an important role in the chemical reactions but are not consumed in the process. Nevertheless, a VPO catalyst changes over time as a result of this use.

In a collaborative effort, scientists from two research divisions at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI – the Photon Science Division and the Energy and Environment Division – together with researchers at ETH Zurich and the Swiss company Clariant AG, have now investigated in detail the ageing process of VPO catalysts. In the course of their research, they also developed a new experimental method.

Read more in the PSI website

Image: Zirui Gao, a researcher at PSI, has developed a new algorithm for experimental studies that significantly shortens the duration of certain imaging measurements that would otherwise take too long. The researchers used it to investigate ageing processes in a much-used catalyst material on the nanoscale.

Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Markus Fischer

Dramatic impact of crystallographic conflict on material properties

Many material properties are associated with structural disorder that exhibits local periodicity or correlations. A new form of this phenomenon exhibiting strong disorder-phonon coupling has been shown to arise in response to crystallographic conflict, with dramatic phonon lifetime suppression.

In recent years there has been a rapidly growing understanding that, hidden within the globally periodic structures of many crystals, various forms of disorder may exist that could form ‘locally periodic’ states, which the language of classic crystallography fails to describe. Such phenomena are commonly referred to as ‘correlated disorder’ and in many functional materials, from leading ferroelectric and thermoelectric candidates to photovoltaic perovskites and ionic conductors, this correlated deviation from perfect periodicity plays a pivotal role in governing functionality. As such, understanding the role of disorder, and the correlations that exist within it, is one of the defining challenges for the development of future functional materials.

Read more on the ESRF website

Image: Fig. 1: a) Reciprocal space reconstructions of the (hk2)s plane. All three samples investigated are shown with relevant at. % Mo indicated. Reflections are categorised and indexed in the bottom right quadrant, parent Bragg peaks (black) and diffuse superstructure reflections from two different domains (blue/green). b) Orientational relationship between parent (blue) and superstructure (red) unit cells for one of six possible domains. All atoms in the “shear plane” (highlighted red) move collinearly with the direction of motion indicated by arrows on the plane edge. Alternate planes, demarcated by I, I, III, … , move in antiphase. c) Top-down view showing the 45 relationship between the parent and superstructure. d) Schematic of the atomic motions in a “phonon plane.” Blue dashed and red dotted lines refer to interatomic bonding in the parent and superstructure unit cells, respectively.

Physicists uncover secrets of world’s thinnest superconductor

Physicists report the first experimental evidence to explain the unusual electronic behaviour behind the world’s thinnest superconductor, a material with myriad applications because it conducts electricity extremely efficiently. In this case the superconductor is only an atomic layer thick. 

The research, led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brookhaven National Laboratory, was possible thanks to new instrumentation available at Diamond.  

Diamond is one of only a few facilities in the world to use the new experimental technique, Resonant Inelastic X-ray Scattering (RIXS), which is a combination of X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (XAS) and X-ray Emission Spectroscopy (XES), where both the incident and emitted energies are scanned. This state-of-the-art facility is where the team from three continents conducted their experiment.  

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Members of the RIXS team at Diamond. Left to right: Jaewon Choi (Postdoc), Abhishek Nag (Postdoc), Mirian Garcia Fernandez (Beamline Scientist), Charles Tam (joint PhD student), Thomas Rice (Beamline technician), Ke-Jin Zhou (Principal Beamline Scientist), Stefano Agrestini (Beamline Scientist).

Possible detection of hydrazine on Saturn’s moon Rhea

We present the first analysis of far-ultraviolet reflectance spectra of regions on Rhea’s leading and trailing hemispheres collected by the Cassini Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph during targeted flybys. In particular, we aim to explain the unidentified broad absorption feature centred near 184 nm. We have used laboratory measurements of the UV spectroscopy of a set of candidate molecules and found a good fit to Rhea’s spectra with both hydrazine monohydrate and several chlorine-containing molecules. Given the radiation-dominated chemistry on the surface of icy satellites embedded within their planets’ magnetospheres, hydrazine monohydrate is argued to be the most plausible candidate for explaining the absorption feature at 184 nm. Hydrazine was also used as a propellant in Cassini’s thrusters, but the thrusters were not used during icy satellite flybys and thus the signal is believed to not arise from spacecraft fuel. We discuss how hydrazine monohydrate may be chemically produced on icy surfaces.

Read more on the NSRRC website

Image: The Cassini spacecraft looks toward the cratered plains of the trailing hemisphere of Rhea

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Structure-guided nanobodies block SARS-CoV-2 infection

Monoclonal antibodies are valuable weapons in the battle against COVID-19 as direct-acting antiviral agents (1). Central to virus replication cycle, the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein binds the host cell receptor and engages in virus-host membrane fusion (2). Conformational flexibility of the spike protein allows each of its receptor binding domains (RBDs) to exist in two major configurations: a “down” conformation that is thought to be less accessible to binding of many neutralizing antibodies and an “up” conformation that binds both the receptor and neutralizing antibodies (3-5). Some neutralizing antibodies bind to the RBD in the “up” conformation and compete with the receptor (6, 7), while some neutralizing antibodies bind and stabilize the “down” confor­mation to prevent the conforma­tional changes required for viral entry, thereby hindering infection (8, 9).

Unfortunately, antibody molecules can be more difficult to produce in large quantities and are relatively costly to produce. Single domain antibodies, also known as nanobod­ies, offer an opportunity to rapidly produce antiviral agents for immun­ization and for therapy. Nanobodies are easier to produce, have high thermal stability and have the potential to be administered by inha­lation.

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: Bivalent nanobodies inducing post-fusion conformation of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein: SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins are in a fusion inactive configuration when the RBDs are in the down conformation (left). Binding of bivalent nanobody (red and green ribbons joined by yellow tether) stabilizes the spike in an active conformation with all RBDs up (middle), triggering premature induction of the post-fusion conformation, which irreversibly inactivates the spike protein (right).

New insights into switchable MOF structures at the MX beamlines

Metal-organic framework compounds (MOFs) are widely used in gas storage, material separation, sensor technology or catalysis. A team led by Prof. Dr. Stefan Kaskel, TU Dresden, has now investigated a special class of these MOFs at the MX beamlines of BESSY II. These are “switchable” MOFs that can react to external stimuli. Their analysis shows how the behaviour of the material is related to transitions between ordered and disordered phases. The results have now been published in Nature Chemistry.

Metal-organic framework compounds (MOFs) consist of inorganic and organic groups and are characterised by a large number of pores into which other molecules can be incorporated. MOFs are therefore interesting for many applications, for example for the storage of gases, but also for substance separation, sensor technology or catalysis. Some of these MOF structures react to different guest molecules by changing their structures. They are thus considered switchable.

Read more on the HZB website

Image: View into a MOF crystal exemplified by DUT-8. The massive pores are clearly discernible.

Credit: © TU Dresden

Magnetic vortices come full circle

The first experimental observation of three-dimensional magnetic ‘vortex rings’ provides fundamental insight into intricate nanoscale structures inside bulk magnets, and offers fresh perspectives for magnetic devices.

Magnets often harbour hidden beauty. Take a simple fridge magnet: Somewhat counterintuitively, it is ‘sticky’ on one side but not the other. The secret lies in the way the magnetisation is arranged in a well-defined pattern within the material. More intricate magnetization textures are at the heart of many modern technologies, such as hard disk drives. Now, an international team of scientists at PSI, ETH Zurich, the University of Cambridge (UK), the Donetsk Institute for Physics and Engineering (Ukraine) and the Institute for Numerical Mathematics RAS in Moscow (Russia) report the discovery of unexpected magnetic structures inside a tiny pillar made of the magnetic material GdCo2. As they write in a paper published today in the journal Nature Physics [1], the researchers observed sub-micrometre loop-shaped configurations, which they identified as magnetic vortex rings. Far beyond their aesthetic appeal, these textures might point the way to further complex three-dimensional structures arising in the bulk of magnets, and could one day form the basis for novel technological applications.

Mesmerising insights

Determining the magnetisation arrangement within a magnet is extraordinarily challenging, in particular for structures at the micro- and nanoscale, for which studies have been typically limited to looking at a shallow layer just below the surface. That changed in 2017 when researchers at PSI and ETH Zurich introduced a novel X‑ray method for the nanotomography of bulk magnets, which they demonstrated in experiments at the Swiss Light Source SLS [2]. That advance opened up a unique window into the inner life of magnets, providing a tool for determining three-dimensional magnetic configurations at the nanoscale within micrometre-sized samples.

Utilizing these capabilities, members of the original team, together with international collaborators, now ventured into new territory. The stunning loop shapes they observed appear in the same GdComicropillar samples in which they had before detected complex magnetic configurations consisting of vortices — the sort of structures seen when water spirals down from a sink — and their topological counterparts, antivortices. That was a first, but the presence of these textures has not been surprising in itself. Unexpectedly, however, the scientists also found loops that consist of pairs of vortices and antivortices. That observation proved to be puzzling initially. With the implementation of novel sophisticated data-analysis techniques they eventually established that these structures are so-called vortex rings — in essence, doughnut-shaped vortices.

Read more on the PSI website

Image: Magnetic beauty within. Reconstructed vortex rings inside a magnetic micropillar.

Credit: Claire Donnelly

Report reveals impact of over £1.8bn on UK science & economy by Diamond

A recent study by Technopolis and Diamond estimates a cumulative monetised impact of at least £1.8 billion from the UK’s synchrotron, reflecting very favourably with the £1.2 billion investment made in the facility to date.  And it costs less than a cup of coffee as each taxpayer contributes only £2.45 a year towards it.  The study, published today (26 May), set out to measure and demonstrate Diamond’s scientific, technological, societal, and economic benefits.  The report summarises the findings and highlights the significant impact it has achieved to date.  

Diamond’s mission is to keep the UK at the forefront of scientific research. We do this by providing our users in academia and industry access to our state-of-the-art facilities enabling them to fulfil their research goals across a wide variety of scientific disciplines. This report illustrates the fantastic benefits the facility has delivered and brilliant science being achieved by our 14,000-strong user community, who are tackling some of the most challenging scientific questions of the 21st century.  We are so grateful to our funding agencies UKRI’s STFC and the Wellcome for their trust and ongoing support.Chief Executive of Diamond, Professor Andrew Harrison OBE

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Aerial image of Diamond Light Source

Credit: Diamond Light Source

Scientists uncover a different facet of fuel-cell chemistry

Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) are a promising technology for cleanly converting chemical energy to electrical energy. But their efficiency depends on the rate at which solids and gases interact at the devices’ electrode surfaces. Thus, to explore ways to improve SOFC efficiency, an international team led by researchers from Berkeley Lab studied a model electrode material in a new way—by exposing a different facet of its crystal structure to oxygen gas at operating pressures and temperatures.

“We began by asking questions like, could different reaction rates be achieved from the same material, just by changing which surface the oxygen reacts with?” said Lane Martin, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division. “We wanted to examine how the atomic configuration at specific surfaces of these materials makes a difference when it comes to reacting with the oxygen gas.”

Thin films of a common SOFC cathode material, La0.8Sr0.2Co0.2Fe0.8O3 (LSCF), were epitaxially grown to expose a surface that was oriented along a diagonal crystallographic plane. Electrochemical measurements on this atypical surface yielded oxygen reaction rates up to three times faster than those measured on the usual horizontal plane.

To better understand the mechanisms underlying this improvement, the researchers used Advanced Light Source (ALS) Beamline 9.3.2 to perform ambient-pressure spectroscopy experiments at high temperatures and in varying pressures of oxygen. The results, combined with first-principles calculations, revealed that different crystallographic planes stabilize different surface chemistries, even though the bulk chemistry of the films is identical.

Read more on the ALS website

Image: A model SOFC cathode material adsorbs oxygen molecules (purple spheres) at vacancy sites, an important step in the electrochemical reaction taking place in fuel cells. Ambient-pressure experiments at the ALS allowed measurement of the surface chemical and electronic interactions at high temperature so that researchers could “see” the adsorption of oxygen at it happens. Light blue = La, dark blue = Sr, red = lattice O or O2 molecules, purple = adsorbed O2 molecules.

Credit: Abel Fernandez/UC Berkeley

Ultrafast lasers protect a DNA building block from destruction

An international research team led by DESY researcher Francesca Calegari and with the key participation of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) has demonstrated that ultrashort laser pulses can be used to protect one of the DNA building blocks against destruction induced by vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) radiation. The research group unveiled that a second laser flash in the infrared, timed shortly (only a few millionths of billions of a second) after the first VUV flash, prevented the adenine molecule to disintegrate, therefore stabilising it. The group presents their work in the journal Communications Chemistry published by Nature publishing group.

High energy radiation can cause irreparable damage to our own biological molecules – such as DNA – leading to mutations and potentially cell death. Damage is often occurring as a consequence of the molecular ionisation, inducing the fragmentation of the DNA subunits. So far, protection against radiation damage has hardly been achieved, as the photo-induced dissociation process could not be stopped. In their ultra-short-time experiments, Francesca Calegari´s research group and collaborators have discovered that, by taking advantage of mechanisms that take place on extremely fast time scales, it is indeed possible to protect the molecule.

Read more on the DESY website

image: Artist´s impression of the ultrafast stabilisation of adenine against dissociation: When the molecule is ionised by VUV radiation it undergoes dissociation, however, by taking advantage of a charge migration mechanism and by properly timing a second infrared laser pulse it is possible to stabilise it via a second ionisation event.

Credit: U. De Giovannini MPSD

Unravelling the history of 15th Century Chinese porcelains

Researchers from French and Spanish Institutions used the combination of two synchrotron light characterization techniques to study Chinese blue-and-white Ming porcelains. They were able to identify the firing temperature by determining the porcelain’s pigments and the reduction-oxidation media conditions during their production. The approach they used can also be applied on a broad range of modern and archaeological ceramics to elucidate their production technology.

Pottery is found at the majority of archaeological sites dating from the Neolithic period, when first human settings appear, onwards. Which makes it a major focus of study in archaeological science.  The study of style and production of ceramics is central to the historical reconstruction of a site, region and period.

More specifically, ceramic technological studies look to reconstruct the production technology of ceramics, by determining the selection and preparation of the raw materials, the formation of ceramics, treatment and decoration of the ware’s surface and the firing atmosphere. All of this is possible thanks to the scientific techniques available nowadays.

In a recent publication, researchers from French and Spanish Institutions used the combination of two synchrotron light characterization techniques to study Chinese blue-and-white Ming porcelains. These characteristic porcelains, whose production flourished around the 14th century, are decorated under the glaze with Cobalt-based blue pigments that provided their distinctive blue decorations and produced during a one-step firing at high temperatures.

They were able to identify the firing temperature by determining the porcelain’s pigments and the reduction-oxidation media conditions during their production. The approach they used can also be applied on a broad range of modern and archaeological ceramics to elucidate their production technology.

Read more on the ALBA website

Image: Porcelain Jar with cobalt blue under a transparent glaze (Jingdezhen ware). Mid-15th century

Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

How ventilation might impact blood flow in ventilated preterm babies

A large international collaboration led by researchers from the Hudson Institute for Medical Research and Monash University has revealed that the ventilation of preterm babies to prevent lung collapse could create a risk of brain injury.  

A/Prof Flora Wong, a researcher at Hudson Institute and Monash University, and consultant neonatologist at Monash Children’s Hospital, and a team of physiologists used the Imaging and Medical beamline (IMBL) at the Australian Synchrotron to acquire extremely clear and detailed images of blood vessels in large, preterm clinical models, in an investigation to determine if the pressure of lung ventilation affected blood vessels and blood flow.

A/Prof Wong said the group have shown that higher lung pressure causes engorgement and stretching of the brain blood vessels, which could slow down blood flow in the brain. 

 “This may play a role in preterm brain injury,” she said.

Because of the findings, A/Prof Wong alerted hospitals to carefully monitor their ventilation of preterm babies, who now survive after as few as 23 weeks gestation.

IMBL Principal Scientist Dr Daniel Hausermann, a co-author on the paper published in The Journal of Physiology, said that in vivo CT imaging of dynamic physiological processes, such as blood flow, can be captured quickly in real-time video on the IMBL beamline.

Read more on the Australian synchrotron website

Image: Micro-angiography showing micro-vessels

Artificial spin ice toggles twist in X-ray beams on demand

SCIENTIFIC ACHIEVEMENT

Advanced Light Source (ALS) studies helped scientists understand how a nanoscale magnetic lattice (an artifical spin ice) acts as a toggle switch for x-ray beams with spiral character.

SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPACT

The findings represent an important step toward the development of a versatile new tool for probing or controlling exotic phenomena in electronic and magnetic systems.

A curious singularity

Artificial spin ices (ASIs) are engineered arrays of nanomagnets that are often “frustrated,” meaning that the magnets, constrained by geometry, cannot align themselves to minimize their interaction energy. Water ice exhibits a similar property with regard to the positioning of hydrogen atoms.

While studying ASIs, a collaboration between scientists from the University of Kentucky and the ALS (see related feature article) made an interesting observation: light scattered from certain ASIs produced diffraction patterns in which spots of constructive interference were shaped like donuts instead of dots. The donuts were indicative of a phase singularity—a hallmark of light with a property known as orbital angular momentum (OAM).

Read more on the ALS website

Image: When x-rays are scattered from a patterned array of nanoscale magnets with a lattice defect, the beams acquire a spiral character (orbital angular momentum, or OAM) that produces diffraction patterns with donut-shaped spots. Researchers have found that these OAM beams can be switched on and off by adjusting the temperature or applying an external magnetic field.

Target selection for COVID-19 antibody therapeutics

SCIENTIFIC ACHIEVEMENT

Protein-structure studies at the Advanced Light Source (ALS) helped demonstrate that the primary target of antibody-based COVID-19 immunity is the part of the virus’s spike protein that can most easily mutate.

SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPACT

This work anticipated the rise of SARS-CoV-2 variants and guides the selection of antibody therapeutics that are likely to be more resistant to immune escape.

A better understanding of immunity

To better predict the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and to develop the best new therapeutics, researchers need to understand what regions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are most critical to the immune response and how likely these regions are to mutate and evade immunity.

Two recent papers, relying in part on protein-structure studies at the ALS, have provided detailed information about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 and the human immune response to it. The results reveal where the virus surface protein is most likely to mutate, what the consequences of those mutations may be, and which types of antibodies may be the most effective therapeutics.

Read more on the ALS website

Image: Left: Composite model of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein trimer with six mAbs shown bound to one RBD (Piccoli et al.). Right: The first RBD–ACE2 complex structure where the RBD is a variant, in this case N439K; the figure highlights a new interaction between the N439K residue and ACE2 (Thomson et al.).