First detailed look at how charge transfer distorts a molecule’s structure

Charge transfer is highly important in most areas of chemistry, including photosynthesis and other processes in living things. A SLAC X-ray laser study reveals how it works in a molecule whose lopsided response to light has puzzled scientists for nearly a decade.

When light hits certain molecules, it dislodges electrons that then move from one location to another, creating areas of positive and negative charge. This “charge transfer” is highly important in many areas of chemistry, in biological processes like photosynthesis and in technologies like semiconductor devices and solar cells.

Even though theories have been developed to explain and predict how charge transfer works, they have been validated only indirectly because of the difficulty of observing how a molecule’s structure responds to charge movements with the required atomic resolution and on the required ultrafast time scales.

In a new study, a research team led by scientists from Brown University, the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Edinburgh used SLAC’s X-ray free-electron laser to make the first direct observations of molecular structures associated with charge transfer in gas molecules hit with light.

Molecules of this gas, called N,N′-dimethylpiperazine or DMP, are normally symmetric, with a nitrogen atom at each end. Light can knock an electron out of a nitrogen atom, leaving a positively charged ion known as a “charge center.”

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: In experiments with SLAC’s X-ray free-electron laser, scientists knocked electrons out of a molecule known as DMP to make the first detailed observations of how a process called charge transfer affects its molecular structure. Left: DMP is normally symmetric. Center: When a pulse of light knocks an electron out of one of its nitrogen atoms (blue spheres), it leaves a positively charged ion known as a charge center, shown in pink. This creates a charge imbalance that shifts the positions of atoms. Right: But within three trillionths of a second, the charge redistributes itself between the two nitrogen atoms until it evens out and the molecule becomes symmetric again.

Credit: Greg Stewart/ SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Beaming in on Coronavirus details

User operation resumed at European XFEL end of March, and the first experiments to receive beamtime are those being carried out at the Single Particles, Clusters, and Biomolecules & Serial Femtosecond Crystallography (SPB/SFX) instrument. They will focus on getting deeper insights into the Coronavirus, and, if successful, can lead to a better understanding of the structure of key Coronavirus proteins. New information about the shapes of these proteins, which the virus needs to copy itself, will aid scientists in their quest to find ways to fight COVID.

“Three user collaborations have proposed experiments that will use two distinct approaches to study the Coronavirus. Two collaborations lead by scientists from DESY and Diamond Light Source will look at the structure and binding of ligands to the proteases of the Coronavirus,” says Adrian Mancuso, leading scientist at the SPB/SFX instrument. A ligand is a molecule that binds another specific molecule or atom. Some ligands deliver a signal during the binding process and can be thought of as signaling molecules, which interact with proteins in target cells called receptors. At the European XFEL, scientists can potentially observe the process of these ligands attaching to proteins at atomic resolution, however, first an ordered crystal of the relevant protein is required. “XFELs are uniquely positioned to watch how irreversible processes in proteins—such as binding of potential drug candidates—happen,” explains Mancuso.

Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: A shot from the control hutch showing one of the first COVID-related beamtimes at SPB/SFX

Credit: European XFEL