A Diamond Christmas

We're marking the 12 days of Christmas by bringing you a new science delight every day. Here you can learn about the pioneering work behind some of our most beautiful results images. From advanced new vaccine to cleaner energy sources, research at Diamond is pushing the boundaries of what science can achieve and helping to shape all of our lives in the process.
 
 

25th Dec: EV71 electron density map - Image courtesy of Prof Dave Stuart, Diamond & Oxford University

 
 
An international group, made up of scientists from Oxford, Leeds, China and Austria, used Diamond to successfully develop a novel compound which can prevent a range of viruses from infecting humans. The new inhibitor targets a group of viruses responsible for hand, foot and mouth disease, especially the EV71 virus. This viral group cause numerous epidemics in children, mainly in Asia, with roughly 10 million cases reported every year in China alone. Symptoms are usually mild but in some cases the disease can prove fatal - the Chinese government reported over 900 deaths in 2010. The disease is currently untreatable and is a major global threat to public health.
 
The new inhibitor was identified using cutting edge techniques. Structure-based drug design refers to drug treatments that are specifically designed to target the structure of a disease; it works in three stages. Firstly the pathogen’s structure must be solved. Secondly, scientists must determine how that structure relates to the functioning of the pathogen. Finally, they can develop a means of interacting with that structure to disable the pathogen.

 

This discovery may also have important implications for combating other diseases. Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is caused by several closely related viruses, and the new compound is effective against all of these. In addition, other important viruses are quite closely related (they belong to the same enterovirus genus), including poliovirus and many of the viruses responsible for the common cold.

 

 

25 Dec - Magnetite tracks within samples of comet retrieved on the Stardust mission - Image courtesy of Prof John Bridges, University of Leicester

 
 
 
Using the synchrotron’s cutting-edge tools and techniques, scientists have been able to study samples of comet returned from the Stardust mission. Their research on beamline I13 has uncovered a wealth of important information, providing a window onto the outer solar system and the possible origins of life itself.
 
Launched in 1998, the sample gathering mission flew directly behind a comet called Wild2, trapping particles of the comet’s coma – the envelope around the nucleus of the comet – inside an aerogel package. The samples were then returned to Earth in 2006, to the delight of experts like Prof John Bridges and his team at the University of Leicester, who set about trying to unravel the mysteries they contained.
 
Using X-ray diffraction and X-ray absorption the University of Leicester team discovered the mineral magnetite.  Magnetite is formed from the reaction between iron magnesium silicates and water, so the discovery of this mineral showed that the comet had once contained water. 
 
What’s more, the nature of the comet suggested that it was formed billions of years ago in the outer solar system, beyond Neptune. This makes the existence of water on the comet even more of a surprise; you might expect liquid water to be present in the inner solar system, but not in the cold outer solar system.
 
John’s work has provided the space science community with entirely new information about this far out area of the cosmos, and the discovery of the effects of water on this ancient comet is helping to change our understanding of the early solar system.

Sample return missions offer vital information, and as technology advances we’re likely to see new missions to comets, the moon and even Mars.

 

 

26th Dec: Membrane proteins – Image courtesy of Isabel De Moraes, Membrane Protein Laboratory

 
 
Membrane protein receptors are the biological gatekeepers that carry messages into and between cells. More than 50% of modern drugs currently target proteins in the cell membrane, and they are of pivotal interest to scientists looking to design new antibiotics and other medical treatments for disease. But we need powerful machines like Diamond to study these receptors, because they are so small – many thousands of times smaller than a pinhead.
 
This image shows dehydrated crystals of membrane protein enzyme from the Neisseria sp. Crystals were grown at Diamond’s MPL lab and studied on the synchrotron’s crystallography beamlines. We study membrane proteins in crystal form because it makes it easier to work out their atomic structure. We can then use this structural information to design new drugs.
 
 

27th Dec: Metal organic framework, MFM-300 – Image courtesy of Sihai Yang, University of Manchester

 
 
Scientists are looking at all sorts of ways of trapping toxic gases. One approach is to use an artificially-constructed sub-microscopic structure called a ‘metal organic framework’. Known as  MOFs, these frameworks are made up of molecules that together form a cage-like shape.
 
MOFs can be thought of as chemical sponges: they absorb certain gasses and keep them locked away inside. If we can learn how to fully exploit their potential, MOFs could help us to remove some of the toxic gasses currently released into the atmosphere.
 
But before we start fitting MOFs to the inside of cooling towers and cars we need to know more about how they behave over time. There’s no point in locking away all of the toxic gas if it’s just going to be released again as the structure degrades.
 
And so scientists from the University of Manchester are studying the behaviour of MOFs using Diamond’s long duration experiment facility, where samples can be studied under synchrotron light over a period of up to two years.
 
We need to study the material under this extended timeframe so that we can see how the molecular framework alters over months and years, and whether this impacts on the structural integrity of the MOF and its ability to contain gasses.
 
 

28th Dec: Foot and Mouth Disease Virus - Image courtesy of the Pirbright Institute

 
 
Foot and mouth disease (FMDV) is one of the world’s most economically devastating diseases. The UK suffered outbreaks in 2002 and 2007, and the cost to the economy was an estimated £8 billion However, the disease remains endemic throughout much of the world, costing between $6-21 billion a year in lost livestock and vaccination efforts. In parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, FMDV is an everyday problem, but work at Diamond may help change that.
 
Prof Dave Stuart is Director of Life Sciences at Diamond, and his vaccine research has the potential to revolutionise the treatment of viruses like FMDV. There is currently a vaccine for the disease, but it relies on an inactivated version of the virus itself; this is problematic, because in warmer climates and under certain conditions the vaccine has a very short shelf life.
 
However, Dave and his group from Oxford University and the Pirbright Institute have a new approach. They used Diamond to uncover the exact shape of FMDV, and then they created a lookalike: an identical copy, except there’s nothing inside. These vaccines are known as ‘empty shells’. When a live virus enters the body, the shell cracks open and releases RNA: the genetic code that causes the infected cell to produce millions of new virus particles, allowing the disease to multiply and spread. But Dave’s vaccine only looks like the virus, without actually containing any of the viral information. This means there’s no chance of the vaccine becoming infectious and, what’s more, because it doesn’t use any of the live virus, it’s quicker, easier and safer to produce.
 
This new vaccine methodology could be really significant for people living in parts of the world where FMDV is endemic. Use of an empty shell vaccine opens up the possibility of ultimately wiping FMDV out altogether, a considerable boost for agricultural economies. 
 
 

29th Dec: Amazing grains - Image courtesy of Andrew Neal, Rothamsted Research

 
 
Wheat is one of the most popular foods in the world; combined with rice and maize, it comprises 60% of all human food consumption. The grains are packed with essential nutrients, but they are locked away in forms which cannot be processed by enzymes in the human gut, so much of the goodness is lost.
 
Supported by the BBSRC and Rothamsted Research, Dr Andy Neal is using Diamond’s microfocus spectroscopy beamline I18 to investigate the chemical properties of the grains we eat in the form of breakfast cereals, bread and pasta. Andy uses the X-rays on I18 to map the composition of wheat’s nutritious metals, such as iron and zinc, with a view to improving the nutritional content of humanity’s third most popular food.
 
Andrew’s work uses Diamond to explore methods of changing the way that the grains store their nutrients so that they become easier for our guts to access. This research demonstrates the potential of science to help address issues of malnutrition in the developing world.
 
Andrew explains the global significance: “Even today one billion people are still permanently hungry and millions die each year as a consequence of deficiencies of iron and zinc. Whether this is a problem of politics, production or distribution, we must explore all avenues to correct this, and basic scientific investigation has an important role to play”.
 
 

30th Dec: Sheer Magnetism – Image courtesy of Sarnjeet Dhesi, Diamond Light Source

 
 
Every time you click on a website, watch a movie on your laptop or listen to a song on your phone, the gadget is reading a binary code. Technology uses magnets to track the series of 1s and 0s and translate them into an action, such as opening up Facebook or firing off a tweet. But this little magnet needs a lot of power to function; that’s why you have to charge your tech and top up the battery.
 
Scientists believe that there may be ways to reduce the amount of electricity those little tracking magnets use. Diamond’s nanoscience beamline, I06, produces a very precise, narrow beam; this allows scientists to focus the light into a space only a few microns wide. Using a technique called nano-spectroscopy, scientists can look into important materials and examine the different layers that make up a substance on an atomic level.
 
This image shows the magnetic properties of a very thin oxide film – the different colours represent the various magnetisation states inside the material.
 
With nano-spectroscopy, scientists are looking to uncover more about magnetic materials and what makes the magnets in our gadgets work. By studying the properties of these tiny magnets, the teams at Diamond hope to develop more efficient materials that require less electrical power to read and write the binary code.
 
When you pair materials together on the nanoscale, they can sometimes behave in new and interesting ways. Discovering the hidden properties of different materials is the key to developing technology that is more energy efficient. We may not be able to wave goodbye to power-hungry technology any time soon but, by uncovering new ways to power our phones and computers, synchrotron light could be the spark that sets off the next generation of energy-efficient tech, from improved temperature control systems to super-smart consumer technology.
 
 

30th Dec: Human serum – Image courtesy of Dr Matthew Baker, University of Strathclyde

 
 
 
This image shows an artistic representation of a dried droplet of human serum diluted with physiological water. The patterns are due to salt crystallisation and the natural coffee ring effect that occurs upon drying.
 
Serum is the carrier of biochemicals – like hormones and other chemical messengers – around the human body. If we can learn more about serum, we may be able to use it as a clinical tool to diagnose disease.
 
Using Diamond, scientists are trying to develop accurate disease diagnostics using serum samples and infrared spectroscopy. Infrared is an easy to use, quick method that can quickly analyse any biochemical differences between different serum samples.
 
Dr Matthew Baker and his group from University of Strathclyde aim to develop hand held analysers that doctors can use to diagnose patients in the clinic or at the hospital bed. But before that they need to understand what is occurring when they process the serum; synchrotron light enables them to look at smaller regions and analyse biochemicals that may be present at lower serum concentrations.
 
If they’re successful, this technique could provide accurate early diagnosis of disease, and treatments are much more effective when disease is caught at an early stage.
 
 

31st Dec: Orchid bee eye – Image courtesy of Gavin Taylor, University of Lund, & Andrew Bodey, Diamond Light Source

 
 
Scientists are untangling the mystery of how tropical bees are able to navigate through dense rainforests with brains the size of sesame seeds.
 
Orchid bees are a colourful tribe of insects that live in tropical and sub-tropical regions, often within the rainforests of Central and South America. These bees are known for travelling great distances in search of specific orchids to collect scents from.
 
Using the bright X-ray beam of the Diamond Manchester Imaging Branchline (I13-2), scientists have determined how the orchid bee’s eyes capture the information it needs to fly through its complex habitat.
 
The international group, from Swedish, Australian, South African and UK institutions, found that the bee’s three simple eyes – also known as ocelli – are more complex than previously imagined.
 
The three ocelli each have a retinal region which receives focused light from a different visual field. Other parts of each retina share a primarily unfocused view of a common region, creating a never-before-seen ‘trinocular’ visual field. 
 
These findings are part of a wider research project to determine the mechanisms that allow insects from different habitats to navigate their complex environments. Harnessing the simplicity and efficiency with which insects move around their environments could provide us with new ways of designing improved navigation and stabilisation technology for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
 
Learn more about the research here.
 
 

1st Jan: Osteoarthritis - Image courtesy of Kamel Madi, University of Manchester, & Andrew Bodey, Diamond Light Source

 
 
Osteoarthritis is a debilitating disease and worldwide healthcare burden. It is characterised by the loss of articular cartilage that normally covers the ends of the bones to allow pain free movement. Current clinical strategies do not address the underlying molecular mechanisms that trigger and fuel this degenerative disease. Prior studies have suggested that cells in the articular cartilage undergo uncharacteristic changes, which may result in the deterioration of this tissue. However, little is known of the involvement of a further type of cartilage critical for bone lengthening, known as growth plate cartilage.
 
Research at Diamond is exploring the properties of growth plate cartilage in the knees of arthritic mice, with a view to learning more about how the cartilage changes as the disease progresses. If we can uncover more about the physical impact of disease pathology on growth plate cartilage, it may ultimately be possible to design drugs that target the underlying molecular roots of osteoarthritis.  
 
 
 

2nd Jan: The Mary Rose – Image courtesy of Eleanor Schofield, Mary Rose Trust

 
 
After so many years spent buried beneath the sea, there’s only one way to dry out the Mary Rose: air. Unfortunately, the oxygen in air also happens to pose the greatest threat to the ship’s wooden frame.
 
The timber hull of the Mary Rose contains traces of sulphur, absorbed from the surrounding underwater environment. This sulphur wasn’t a big deal whilst the ship was underwater, but now it’s been brought up and exposed to oxygen, and when oxygen reacts with sulphur, it creates acid – not good news for 500 year old wood.
 
Research on the Mary Rose has taken place at other synchrotrons, but Diamond first became involved in 2008, when the X-ray beam was used to determine how sulphur and iron compounds were distributed and how they interacted inside the individual cells of the wood. Now that the ship has started to dry out, scientists can use Diamond to analyse the impact of oxygen on the ship and work out whether the conservation efforts have been truly successful.
 
Different elements fluoresce when exposed to X-ray light, so by exposing slivers of timbers from the Mary Rose to the beam, we can determine exactly what elements are present and their form. This helps us to monitor levels of sulphur in the drying wood, and to spot any potential oxidation and resulting acid build up as the ship dries.
 
 

3rd Jan: Neurodegenerative disease – Image courtesy of Joanna Collingwood, University of Warwick

 
 
Neuroscience is a complex and multifaceted business, and we still have a lot to learn when it comes to diagnosing and treating neurodegenerative disorders. Understanding the brain chemistry that leads to the onset of conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s is vital if we are to improve opportunities for diagnosis and develop effective treatments for these devastating diseases.
 
Dr Joanna Collingwood, from the School of Engineering at the University of Warwick is working with national and international collaborators to study the properties of trace metals in the brain tissue of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease sufferers. They are looking at the distribution of metals in the cells and tissues, and at the chemistry and biology describing the way that these metals are used and stored.
 
Healthy tissues from donors are compared with those from individuals who had neurodegenerative diseases, so that her team can identify features that are specific to the disease process, including metals associated with pathological hallmarks such as the plaques in Alzheimer’s disease.
 
The ultimate goals of this research are twofold: firstly, to identify opportunities for earlier diagnosis using MRI, so that protective treatment can be used at an earlier stage before irreversible cell death takes place; secondly, to identify if these chemical changes provide targets for drug treatment that could protect against damage caused by altered metal metabolism without removing the trace metals that are essential to health.
 
The synchrotron X-ray techniques that Joanna’s team use provide unparalleled sensitivity to detect these trace metals in tissues, and to obtain detailed information about the chemistry of the metal ions, and the proteins and molecules that they are bound to, without damaging the samples. This is really important: it makes it possible to investigate a single sample using many different methods, so that some of the most technically challenging questions in the field can be addressed.
 
 

3rd Jan: Ancient Mysteries – Image courtesy of Duncan Sayer, University of Central Lancaster

 
 
These beautiful swirling colours indicate the intersection of copper and gold on the surface of a 1,500 year old Anglo-Saxon brooch. The ornamental object was found at Oakington, Cambridgeshire inside the grave of a pregnant woman.
 
Scientists are looking into the composition of the brooches to investigate the relationship between objects, technology and people. This could tell them more about Anglo-Saxon culture. For instance, the presence of enamel – common in West England – suggests a greater fusion of people and ideas after the collapse of the Roman Empire.
 
 

4th Jan: Inside Steel – Image courtesy of David Collins, University of Oxford

 
 
Metals and alloys are used to make buildings, vehicles and infrastructure like bridges and train tracks: small tweaks to the micro-structure of these materials can alter their mechanical properties, like strength and toughness.
 
The colours in this image represent microscopic crystals that make up steel, each just 0.02 mm wide – that’s about the width of human hair. The very small size of these crystals is one of the key features that make metals and alloys so strong. This particular material is a type of steel used in a BMW-MINI.
 
Using experimental apparatus that he built himself from scratch, Dr David Collins studies samples of steel on Diamond’s materials beamline I12. Also known as JEEP, which stands for Joint Engineering and Environmental Processing, this beamline is designed to investigate the processes taking place inside materials as they happen. It’s housed all sorts of interesting samples, from a full sized motorbike to the fan blade from a Rolls-Royce aeroplane engine. With the capabilities of I12, Dave can watch how the properties of steel change as its atoms are altered.
 

“I’m looking right down into the material at the thousands of minute crystals that make up steel. Each of these crystals has a unique atomic arrangement within the metal, but by manipulating this arrangement, I’m hoping to reorient the crystals in the perfect position to make the steel much more ductile.” Dave continues: “Steel has been used for thousands of years, but there’s still so much to find out. That’s what’s so great about materials science, there’s always more to discover.”

 

 

A brighter future for us all

 

 
Thank you for exploring the beautiful side of science with us this festive season.
 
You’ve seen some of the incredible things that science is helping us to achieve, but how exactly do we make these discoveries? Scientific technology is the unsung hero of modern science – without it, we’d never be able to make the huge progress we’ve seen in recent years.
 
Diamond Light Source is the UK’s synchrotron. It works like a giant microscope, harnessing the power of electrons to produce bright light that scientists can use to study anything from fossils to jet engines to viruses and vaccines.
 
The machine speeds up electrons to near light speeds so that they give off a light 10 billion times brighter than the sun. These bright beams are then directed off into lab’ oratories known as ‘beamlines’. Here, scientists use the light to study a vast range of subject matter, from new medicines and treatments for disease to innovative engineering and cutting-edge technology.
 
Whether it’s fragments of ancient paintings or unknown virus structures, at the synchrotron, scientists can study their samples using a machine that is 10,000 times more powerful than a traditional microscope.
 
Diamond is one of the most advanced scientific facilities in the world, and its pioneering capabilities are helping to keep the UK at the forefront of scientific research.