A star is born

Swiss Light Source SLS reveals complex chemistry inside ‘stellar nurseries’

An international team of researchers has uncovered what might be a critical step in the chemical evolution of molecules in cosmic “stellar nurseries.” In these vast clouds of cold gas and dust in space, trillions of molecules swirl together over millions of years. The collapse of these interstellar clouds eventually gives rise to young stars and planets.

Like human bodies, stellar nurseries contain a lot of organic molecules, which are made up mostly of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The group’s results, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, reveal how certain large organic molecules may form inside these clouds. It’s one tiny step in the eons-long chemical journey that carbon atoms undergo—forming in the hearts of dying stars, then becoming part of planets, living organisms on Earth and perhaps beyond.

“In these cold molecular clouds, you’re creating the first building blocks that will, in the end, form stars and planets,” said Jordy Bouwman, research associate at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) and assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at University Colorado Boulder.

For the new study, Bouwman and his colleagues took a deep dive into one stellar nursery in particular: the Taurus Molecular Cloud (TMC-1). This region sits in the constellation Taurus and is roughly 440 light years (more than 2 quadrillion miles) from Earth. The chemically complex environment is an example of what astronomers call an “accreting starless core.” Its cloud has begun to collapse, but scientists haven’t yet detected embryonic stars emerging inside it.

Read more on the PSI website

Image: Using PEPICO spectroscopy at the SLS, researchers discovered how hexagonally-shaped ortho-benzyne molecules can combine with methyl radicals to form a series of larger organic molecules, each containing a ring of five carbon atoms.

Credit: Henry Cardwell

Unravelling tautomeric mixtures

RIXS at BESSY II allows to see clearly

A team at HZB has developed a method of experimentally unravelling tautomeric mixtures. Based on resonant inelastic X-ray scattering (RIXS) at BESSY II, not only proportions of the tautomers can be deduced, but the properties of each individual tautomer can be studied selectively. This method could yield to detailed information on the properties of molecules and their biological function. In the present study, now advertised on the cover of “The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters” the technique was applied to the prototypical keto-enol equilibrium.

Many (organic) molecules exist as a mixture of two almost identical molecules, with the same molecular formula but one important difference: A single hydrogen atom sits in a different position. The two isomeric forms transform into each other, creating a delicate equilibrium, a “tautomeric” mixture. Many amino acids are tautomeric mixtures, and since they are building blocks of proteins, they may influence their shape and function and thus their biological functions in organisms.

Until now: Mission impossible

Until now, it has been impossible to selectively investigate the electronic structure of such tautomeric mixtures experimentally: Classical spectroscopic methods “see” only the sum of the signals of each molecular forms – the details of the properties of the two individual tautomers cannot be determined.

Now at BESSY II: it works

A team led by HZB physicist Prof. Alexander Föhlisch has now succeeded in providing a method of experimentally unravelling tautomeric mixtures. Using inelastic X-ray scattering (RIXS) and a data processing/evaluation method newly developed at HZB, the individual proportions of the tautomers can be clearly deduced from the measured data. “We can experimentally separate the signal of each individual molecule in the mixture by X-ray scattering, which leads to a detailed insight into their functionality and chemical properties,” says Dr. Vinicíus Vaz Da Cruz, first author of the paper and postdoc in Föhlisch’s team.

Read more on the HZB website

Image: The illustration visualises the experimental method, here on the prototypical keto-enol equilibrium. It appears on the cover of “The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters”.

Credit: © Martin Künsting / HZB

New substance library to accelerate the search for active compounds

In order to accelerate the systematic development of drugs, the MX team at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) and the Drug Design Group at the University of Marburg have established a new substance library. It consists of 1103 organic molecules that could be used as building blocks for new drugs. The MX team has now validated this library in collaboration with the FragMAX group at MAX IV. The substance library of the HZB is available for research worldwide and also plays a role in the search for substances active against SARS-CoV-2.

For drugs to be effective, they usually have to dock to proteins in the organism. Like a key in a lock, part of the drug molecule must fit into recesses or cavities of the target protein. For several years now, the team of the Macromolecular Crystallography Department (MX) at HZB headed by Dr. Manfred Weiss together with the Drug Design Group headed by Prof. Gerhard Klebe (University of Marburg) has therefore been working on building up what are known as fragment libraries. These consist of small organic molecules (fragments) with which the functionally important cavities on the surface of proteins can be probed and mapped. Protein crystals are saturated with the fragments and then analysed using powerful X-ray light. This allows three-dimensional structural information to be obtained at levels of atomic resolution. Among other things, it is possible to find out how well a specific molecule fragment docks to the target protein. The development of these substance libraries took place as part of the joint Frag4Lead research project and was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Read more on the BESSY II website

Image : For the study, the enzyme endothiapepsin (grey) was combined with molecules from the fragment library. The analysis shows that numerous substances are able to dock to the enzyme (blue and orange molecules). Every substance found is a potential starting point for the development of larger molecules. 

Credit: Wollenhaupt/HZB