From Diamond Light Source, this is the Diamond Podcast
Meera Senthilingam - Hello and welcome to the March edition of the Diamond Light Source podcast with me, Meera Senthyingum. This month, we’re celebrating Diamond’s 10th anniversary and exploring how far both the synchrotron and the research taking place there have advanced since the facility was first signed, sealed and agreed to be delivered in March 2002.
“On the 27th of March we were ready to sign the contract and I must say, I have never signed so many papers in such a short time as I did on that day. I was very blessed that I found an excellent team, highly motivated to start and build Diamond really, it was great."
Diamond’s Chief Executive, Gerd Materlik will be explaining how the synchrotron became a reality as well as the range of scientific developments that have stemmed from its, now numerous, beamlines. We’ll also be hearing how the life sciences have grown at Diamond, including new insight into viruses and designing drugs against them as well as the physical sciences, where meteorites are being explored to investigate the formation of our solar system. So all that coming up, plus the latest news and events from the synchrotron.
The Diamond Podcast, for more information look us up online at www.diamond.ac.uk/podcast
Meera - 10 years ago an idea was born and agreed upon by a range of notable scientific institutions and organisations, to build a large donut-shaped building in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside, where electrons would be moving close to the speed of light and generating beams of light that would benefit scientists across all disciplines: The Diamond Light Source. And one man, who has been there from day 1 and has seen the growth of this facility through to its current state, housing 20 beamlines from which over 1,700 scientific papers have been published, is Diamond’s CEO Gerd Materlik.
Gerd – I joined the project in October 2001 and at that time there was just a handful of people locally here and it was green field situation and of course we had to populate, first of all, the team. We had to get a framework for the team and the requirement was to form a private company where the Wellcome Trust was one shareholder and the government was the second one and they were then represented by a Research Council, STFC. And then finally, on the 27th March we were ready to sign the contract in London and I must say, I have never signed so many papers in such a short time as I did on that day. I was very blessed that I found an excellent team, highly motivated to start and build Diamond really, it was great.
Meera – But throughout Diamond’s development, there have essentially been many phases. So you’re in phase 3 at the moment, but what was the initial kind of goal, phase 1 I guess?
Gerd – Yes, it was phase 1 of course, because we first needed a building, we needed the accelerator to generate the light, we needed beamlines to start out with, and of course we needed a team of people, infrastructure, administration, finance and so on, and programmes to really keep track of our budget and all this needed to be done during phase 1. And phase 1 sort of started in 2002, we celebrated success then in January 2007.
Meera – What’s the current situation with Diamond? So we’re in phase 3, how many beamlines and staff are there today?
Gerd – Phase 1 just had 7 beamlines and then phase 2 came along with an additional 15 beamlines, we still need to finish two of them, of these 15, so we have 20 beamlines in operation and we are building now 10 additional ones which is phase 3.
Meera – What have been, say, some of the challenges along the way to get to where you are now?
Gerd – The transition from building something and making something work, to then operating it, was a very important challenge. On the later on, it’s more diffuse. If you want to carry out science, the can’t focus, you need to be looking in all kinds of different areas and try to find different tools for solving your problems and its very bad to focus then, you really have to look around, think outside the box and solve the problem. That’s where we are presently. The challenge to go from phase 1 to phase 2 of operations, that was also very special.
Meera – If you had to, say, summarise the main benefits of Diamond to its users, to the people working here, to the general public, how would you summarise really what Diamond is all about?
Gerd – So what you really want to focus in on is - what is the outcome, what are we contributing to the knowledge base of the UK, but also what are we contributing to the Industrial base in the UK? On the knowledge base, of course, it’s wonderful, this is something where the academic groups come to us and they demonstrate they need Diamond, we are oversubscribed to the beamlines, that was expected from the beginning, but the problems which are brought to us right now are very different from what we thought initially. What the academic groups then were sort of expecting is very often completely different now when they’re coming. Science is changing so fast and at such a pace that things are very different now than when we thought about 10 years ago. When we look on what we contributed to society, it’s the knowledge base. If we ask ourselves where did the Industrial sector benefit from? 20% of all our projects have a direct relation to Industrial projects going on at Universities or directly at Diamond.
Meera – And given that it’s been 10 years, what about the next 10 years?
Gerd – You look at the kind of technical development going on and a lot is going on right now in computing. That means we will be able to take data fast and analyse them on the side, because there are so many data because the detectors are getting better and better. We are using detectors like in the cameras and this benefits to the science and this benefits to the pace, to the speed at which results are being produced, so for sure we will have contributed to learn much more about catalytical reactions, fuel cells for the energy sector, that’s something that I’m convinced about that this will happen over the next 10 years, but also in life sciences, in 10 years we will have understood much better how life is really functioning and so that will be my hope and expectation that in 10 years from now and see what Diamond has contributed to, that will be part of it.
Meera – So plenty to look forward to then. That was Diamond’s CEO, Gerd Materlik. Now, as Gerd mentioned, researchers from across all scientific disciplines come in to use Diamond. They explore areas ranging from contaminated soils, works of art, ancient transcripts and new materials. But one area that’s been explored more extensively than any other is the Life Sciences, where 800 biological structures have been identified. Dave Stewart is Director of Life Sciences at Diamond and he explained the journey to reach theses accomplishments from when Diamond first began operation in 2007 as he was one of the first people to use the beamlines.
Dave – Ok, well I started working at Diamond in April 2008, which is a few years now, and my role is to really keep an eye on the life science activity at Diamond and over the last few years we’ve been looking at what beamlines are missing from our portfolio and what we should be building in the future to make sure again, that we sort of maximise the output of the life science community in the UK.
Meera – And I guess just going back to Diamond when it first began operating, I guess, what was it like as a User?
Dave - It was very different really. We were some of the first users on one of the macromolecular crystallography beamlines, it did feel very early days, so the pieces were there, we could do the experiments, but since then there’s been enormous changes and developments.
Meera – And what about your own area of research? So you look into viruses?
Dave – Yes, we’re really interested in the structure of viruses. They’re the smallest units that have a genetic history, they follow the form of evolution and our interest in their structure is so that we can try and design better vaccines, and also to see if there’s ways of making better anti-viral compounds and really the last few years have seen fantastic developments at Diamond in terms of our ability to look at virus structure and we’ve had some very interesting work that was published in Nature of Structural & Molecular Biology just last Sunday actually, where for the first time, we were using the new technology at Diamond and were able to determine a number of structures for the virus that’s responsible for a big epidemic in South East Asia called Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease, a real problem in children in China. It’s been very exciting for me to see the technical developments of the beamline that have then enabled one to do the experiments that give more biological insight into the really sort of important questions.
Meera – And what have these developments been I guess, what’s changed in order to allow you to get this extra level of insight?
Dave – It’s a number of things. One of the fantastic things is a new generation of detectors that we’re using the synchrotron beamlines like microscopes, but we’re using beamlines instead of light to do that, so we need detectors to pick up the X-rays and then we use computers to make the 3-Dimensional image from that. Detectors over the last few years have changed from, essentially it’s like moving from a still camera to a movie camera, we can now record in a completely seamless way collecting at 25 frames per second, so sort of similar to a movie camera. It makes a big difference to what we can do. We’re also now able to collect data from our samples without actually opening up the experiments, so we can set up a crystallisation experiment ‘cause we need to form crystals of our viruses, and there’s no need for handling the experiment, it can be put up in situ, in its tray which is what we use to do the experiment on the beamline. This was completely sort of impossible until a couple of years ago.
Meera – So combining this all together really, as well as the fact that the technology has helped you gain better insight into certain viruses, what have been your own personal highlights over the past, well, 5 years of Diamond being in operation?
Dave – Well, it’s been a lot that’s changed in that period and I think every time a new beamline comes online it’s a real highlight and when one sees new possibilities, new areas of science that are opened up by these new beamlines, its tremendously exciting and the ability to work with the User community to try and find opportunities for designing new beamlines that will enable new science and then see those come into operation and start to deliver results to people, it’s a fantastic thing.
Meera – And so where is it hoped, having had theses discussion, where the beamlines will go next and from that, I guess, where do you hope your own research will go next, perhaps in the next 10 years?
Dave – What I’m looking forward to in the next 10 years is not just to build on improving what we’re doing now, but to try and move in some new areas. I mentioned that at the moment we use computers to rebuild images from X-ray beamlines, but we’ve also now got a beamline coming on line that will do directly X-ray microscopy. So this will allow us to look at complete cells, so for me one of the exciting visions for the future is to put together a set of beamlines that will allow one to choose a biological problem and try to understand it from the cellular level, how the cells work in tissues, and then down to the sub-cellular level and ultimately to understand what’s going on at the level of individual molecules within the cell. That’s a tremendously challenging problem but we have most of the tools now to start to do that and we can see that it should be feasible over the next 10 years.
Meera – Diamond’s Life Science Director, Dave Stewart.
Did you know… it took Dorothy Hodgkin 12 years to solve the structure of Insulin? If she were to do this today on one of Diamond’s MX beamlines, it would only take 15 minutes.
Meera – You’re listening to the Diamond Lights Source Podcast and this month we’re celebrating 10 years since the commissioning of Diamond Light Source and exploring the journey from empty grassland to functioning facility. Still to come, we discover how mineralogists are using Diamond to explore the formation of meteorites and hear some personal perspectives of the Light Source from staff working at Diamond. But first, it’s time for our news update with Sarah Bucknall starting with some new research into quite an important area of structural biology.
Sarah – Yes, our Microfocus Macromolecular Crystallography (MX) beamline I24 was used by a team of scientists from Kyoto University and the University of Tokyo to determine the structure of the GPCR A2A adenosine receptor. It was actually bound with an antibody fragment that inhibits the protein’s response. So the results were published in the journal Nature and they’ll give scientists a better chance at controlling GPCR activity.
Meera – So if you could set the scene here perhaps a little, what is the GPCR receptor?
Sarah – Well a GPCR is a G-protein-coupled receptors. It’s the single most important drug target in the body because they are central to so many biological processes. Basically they are responsible for transmitting chemical signals into a variety of different cell types. So gaining a better understanding of how they operate will help scientists develop new ways to modulate their activity. So this team focused on the A2A adenosine receptor which has many vital roles, for example it can regulate blood flow to the cardiac muscle, and also the release of glutamate and dopamine in the brain. So being able to control the effect of neurotransmitters such as these makes this particular GPCR a potential therapeutic target in conditions such as insomnia, depression and Parkinson’s disease.
Meera – and so how did the team actually analyse this receptor and what did they see?
Sarah – Well, by solving the structure of the A2A adenosine receptor bound to the antibody fragment, the team was able to understand how the binding mechanism works. So they could see that the antibody fragment induces an inactive conformation of the receptor and locks it into an inactive state. So having a better understanding of how the GPCR binding mechanism works, increases scientists’ ability to control GPCR activity, and that in turn results in a better chance to work on treatments for diseases and conditions where GPCRs play a key role.
Meera – Which would hopefully be quite a wide range of diseases. And now moving away from the body, but to other potentially harmful things for us, toxic sludge Sarah?
Sarah – Yes, well we had a team from the University of Leeds used Diamond’s Microfocus Spectroscopy beamline, that’s I18, and they were determining the oxidation states of three metals in the red mud, or toxic sludge, that escaped from a tailings dam in Hungary in 2010. This was quite bad, it was around 184 million gallons of this red mud, which was a mixture of water and mining waste which contained heavy metals, flooded out from an aluminium producing plant into nearby towns and villages and across agricultural land in western Hungary. Hungarian officials made the decision to remove large amounts of the red mud from the countryside, and this was a costly exercise. But the Leeds team’s results suggest that the clean up action was wise.
Meera – So what did that actually do, and how did their findings suggest that this was a wise decision?
Sarah – Well, led by Dr Ian Burke, the team used I18 to determine the oxidation states of arsenic, chromium and vanadium found in the red mud. They were able to show that the arsenic and chromium in the red mud wouldn’t have presented a significant danger, and that’s because they were in an oxidation state that means that they are unlikely to be very mobile in the environment.
Meera – And so that’s not a concern really, was the vanadium the problem?
Sarah – That’s right, they found that the oxidation state of the vanadium means that this element is more likely to be mobile and pose a potential threat. Therefore, justifying collection and removal of the red mud from affected areas.
Meera – Well I think I would definitely want any toxic sludge or mud as far away from me as possible. Now moving away though from research, the results have been out of the short story competition that Diamond ran recently?
Sarah – That’s it, we now have a winner for our Light Reading, short story competition. So this is the competition that we ran last year when we put a call out to the general public asking for fictional short stories that are inspired by the synchrotron, and we can now reveal that the winning story is The Sound of Science.
Meera – So what’s it about? It makes me think of the Sound of Music!
Sarah – I’m not sure about that, it’s about a harassed scientist leading a school tour of a synchrotron and she is heckled by a slug-like alien. As the tale unfolds we get to the bottom of their mysterious visit to planet earth. It’s written by Corie Ralston who is actuallt a beamline scientist at the Advanced Light Source, which is a synchrotron in California.
Meera – And where do people have to go to see this, but also potentially the runners up as well?
Sarah – People can read the winning stories, the runners-up and also highly commended entries can be read in full at www.light-reading.org.
Meera – As well as competitions though, this edition of the podcast is all about the 10th anniversary, so what in terms of outreach are you doing to celebrate?
Sarah - We recently took part in the Oxfordshire Science Festival and that ran for two weeks in March. The Oxford Castel Quarter hosted an exhibition of images from the first ten years of the Diamond and we also had a stand at the festival’s interactive science fair and we also ran a couple of public talks for people of all ages, about Diamond in general as well as a talk by one of our users Professor Mark Hodson from the University of Reading, and he talked about how the humble earthworm survives in toxic soils
Meera – So more toxic soils and toxic sludge I guess. So you’ve been really reaching out to the local community, what’s still to come?
Sarah – Well in mid June we are running a series of Inside Diamond days for educational groups and the general public and there’ll also be a science fair showcasing the wide variety of research carried out by Diamond’s users.
Meera – And what do people need to do to try to attend?
Sarah – Well it all starts on the 16th of June, so more information and booking details can be found on our website.
Meera – And that web address is www.diamond.ac.uk. That was Sarah Bucknall from Diamond’s communication team who’ll be back in the next edition with more news and events from the light source. Now, moving back to Diamond’s 10th anniversary and our exploration of its growth and development, we meet mineralogist Paul Schofield from the Natural History Museum. Paul was one of the first users of the synchrotron and has been using its beams of light to explore the minerals within samples that are quite literally ‘Out of this world’.
Paul – So the main direction of my research is to probe the chemistry and the properties of minerals and to see how they change as a function of global processes. For example, mountain building processes, or perhaps weathering processes, or environmental processes occurring on the surface of the Earth.
Meera – Now, one particular area that you work on that’s quite interesting is meteorites. So you look at their composition and I guess that may tell you about the environment of the solar system that they, I guess, were produced in.
Paul – Yeah, that’s right. Meteorites give us an excellent opportunity to study the processes that have gone on through the formation and the subsequent evolution of the solar system and the planets, the various planetary bodies that we see today. Something that Diamond and synchrotron radiation in general is fantastic for offering, is that it gives us the chance to non-destructively study the meteorites. Every meteorite is utterly unique, whether it’s a large meteorite or a very rare, small meteorite, it’s still unique.
Meera – So I guess you don’t really want to ruin this small kind of sample you have by destroying it?
Paul – Absolutely, the last thing we want to do is grind it up and do some sort of bulk analysis, which is what perhaps used to go on when that was state of the art, but now with Diamond, who provide micro beam techniques and non-destructive techniques, we can look at each individual mineral phase, see how it’s related to its neighbours and how they’re related to their neighbours and then start to build up a fantastic picture of its mineral chemistry, its mineralogy and its mineral textures. And we can then relate those to the formation processes that produced the meteorite in the first place
Meera – Now, you are one of Diamonds first users, so you’ve been using it ever since 2007 when the first beamline opened, what were you really looking into in your first project there?
Paul – So I was the first user of I18 which was the Microfocus spectroscopy beamline, and the first samples that we took along were samples of iron meteorites, such as this large sample of iron meteorite here which is from Hembry in Australia.
Meera – This is extremely heavy, it’s quite a large sample actually, it’s about, maybe, 20cm in length and very dense, very heavy.
Paul – Yes, very dense. I mean it’s entirely made of iron and nickel, and has a small fusion crust around the outside that gives it is black, rusty appearance, but inside it’s completely untouched from anything that might have affected it as it arrived at the Earth’s surface.
Meera – Yes, looking at it, it’s very shiny and very smooth.
Paul – That’s right, and it shows all the mineral textures that were prevalent at the end of its natural sort of geological formation. The sample we are actually looking at was a sample of Santa Catarina found at Brazil in San Francisco and I have a very small piece inside this bottle, wrapped in here. So here we have a small, 1 cm square slice of the Santa Catarina meteorite.
Meera – So this is very, you can tell its metallic, it’s shiny and smooth again.
Paul – Yes, that’s right and it has 2 slightly unique properties: firstly, the ratio of iron to nickel is such that it separates it out to a group of meteorites know as axonite meteorites, which represent only about 5 or 10% of iron meteorites themselves, but the chemistry with about 35% nickel also means that these metals that make up this phase are called Invar metals which have a fantastic number of technological applications in the world today, in everything from electronics, to computers and so on. And so these things are studied from a technology point of view, from a metallurgy point of view and also from a meteoritics and cosmochemistry point of view as well.
Meera – So this is from the meteorite Santa Catarina, what were you able to using the beamline about its composition?
Paul – One of the great mysteries of this meteorite was it was found to have about 5 – 8% oxygen in there and it is very unclear whether that oxygen is part and parcel of the original meteorite, was that part of the planetary core that it initially came from, or has it simply been added to the meteorite from weathering at the Earth’s surface? And if oxygen was found to be a primary element of this thing, then it means that a lot of our models that we have as to what the chemistry and the properties of planetary cores may have to be revisited. We may have to think again and start incorporating elements such as oxygen
Meera – And I guess, almost just stepping back a bit to set the scene of just what these meteorites were, so you’ve mentioned that they would have been planetary cores essentially and planetary bodies and the planets in their past.
Paul – Yes, I guess planetesimals of some sort. We can’t work out from a sample this big quite how big the planetary body was, but it has to have been big enough for certain planetary processes to have gone on, for example, the separation of a core form the rest of a body.
Meera – And so I guess, how you been able to really piece this together? So you were looking perhaps into the presence of oxygen and so on, what would you say were the key points that you found out about this particular meteorite are?
Paul – Well we’ve found that the oxygen is associated only with certain areas of the mineral texture that we see and within there we are able to show where the oxygen was bonded, what elements it was bonded to and what minerals it subsequently formed. And we can propose as to whether they have been produced from a weathering process at the Earth’s surface, that sort of thing. But we’ve also been able to look at the microscale some of the minerality there, there are some unique minerals within this meteorite, minerals that we cannot even synthesise in the lab today. So we’ve been able to characterise these minerals, which is information that can be taken on firstly to look at what processes went on to produce them or what sort of impact processes may have gone on. Again we can look at the oxygen story and see if we can associate whether that’s part of the primary process or not, and then we can look and see and work out cooling rates and so on from the minerals that are formed.
Meera - And I guess would you combine this with knowledge of say, when this planetary body must have existed, to almost then provide the knowledge of this environment in a timeline kind of basis?
Paul – Well it is possible, it wasn’t our primary goal, but this is precisely the sort of thing certain meteoritics and cosmochemists would be studying, they may be looking at the minerals, the mineral textures and they’ll be piecing back together sort of the geological history of this planetary body and then putting that back into context with the early solar system to build up stronger models as to how the solar system itself has evolved.
Meera – Fascinating how such detailed and specific findings can contribute to the bigger picture of the workings of our solar system, as well as its evolution. That was Paul Schofield from the Natural History Museum. Now, that’s almost it for this month, but before we go we meet some of the staff based at Diamond and its surrounding facilities to hear their personal perspectives on their role and involvement with the synchrotron over the past 10 years.
Jim – Hello, my name’s Jim Kay. I am Head of Engineering and my group designs the accelerator, beamline and building projects. I first worked on Diamond in 1993 when the Wolfson report recommended replacing the aging SRS synchrotron at the Daresbury Lab. Diamond developed slowly through the 90’s until 1999 when the Wellcome Trust partnered with government to form the Joint Venture. To be among the first employees facing a green field site was very exciting. Recruiting the group, buying the kit and seeing Diamond take shape from the ground up was brilliant. For the future, the hard work continues building world class beamlines and I look forward to news of our first Nobel prize!
Silvana – I’m Silvana Westbury and I’m the PR Manager at Diamond Light Source. One of my tasks is to help put Diamond ‘on the map’. I’m filled with fond memories when I take myself back to 2004 and recall what Diamond was like as an organisation back then. The synchrotron and Diamond House buildings were both construction sites and the staff of around 100 were scattered around the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in various buildings and even Portacabins. We were given a golden opportunity to highlight Diamond in October that year, when Lord Sainsbury announced that the Government and the Wellcome Trust were giving us the green light and funding for 15 more beamlines, which would be added around the ring by 2012. Awareness of Diamond was starting to build and the communications team began having ambitious ideas about who should be invited along to our Official Opening in 2007. And one of our ideas became reality with the facility being opened by none other than her Majesty, the Queen
Stephen – I’m Stephen King, an ISIS Instrument Scientist. One of the arguments for building Diamond at the Rutherford Laboratory was its co-location with the ISIS Neutron & Muon Source, and the scientific advances that would flow from collaboration between the two Facilities. From my perspective, the collaboration of the last 10 years must be the XIV International Conference on Small-Angle Scattering that a small, but dedicated, team drawn from Diamond and ISIS, and which I part led, staged in Oxford in September 2009. The stakes were high: the conference (held approximately every 3 years) had never been convened in the UK before, and we eventually entertained 430 delegates from 30 countries. Rather like London 2012, We actually had to bid for the right to stage the conference at the 2006 conference in Kyoto, Japan, and I well remember being in a hotel one evening with my Diamond colleague composing an email to both CEO’s telling them we had won and that the hard work would soon begin.
Meera – And we’ll being hearing more personal perspectives over the next few podcasts as Diamond’s 10th Anniversary celebrations will be taking place throughout the year. Now that’s from this edition of the Podcast, but do join us again in May as we return to the research and bring you more scientific discoveries taking place at Diamond. In the meantime, if you have any questions about Diamond or the research taking place there, the email address is email@example.com or you can listen to previous editions if this programme online at www.diamond.ac.uk/podcast or www.nakedscientist.com/diamond you can also subscribe to the podcast on itunes. Thank you this month to Gerd Materlik, Dave Stewart, Sarah Bucknall, Paul Schofield, Stephen King, Silvana Westbury and Jim Kay. I’m Meera Senthylingum and until the next edition, goodbye.
The Diamond podcast is brought to you by Diamond Light source and produced by the Nakedscientists.com. There’s more information on our website at www.diamond.ac.uk/podcast