SSRL Science Highlights Archive

Approximately 1,700 scientists visit SSRL annually to conduct experiments in broad disciplines including life sciences, materials, environmental science, and accelerator physics. Science highlights featured here and in our monthly newsletter, Headlines, increase the visibility of user science as well as the important contribution of SSRL in facilitating basic and applied scientific research. Many of these scientific highlights have been included in reports to funding agencies and have been picked up by other media. Users are strongly encouraged to contact us when exciting results are about to be published. We can work with users and the SLAC Office of Communication to develop the story and to communicate user research findings to a much broader audience. Visit SSRL Publications for a list of the hundreds of SSRL-related scientific papers published annually. Contact us to add your most recent publications to this collection.


May 2021
Ian A. Wilson, The Scripps Research Institute

A potential treatment for COVID-19 patients is administering monoclonal antibodies, which can directly neutralize virus by interacting with its spike protein. Monoclonal antibodies are identified from patients or lab animals that have been exposed to the virus and manufactured in larger quantities to treat patients. One downside to monoclonal antibody treatment is the difficulty and expense in producing large quantities of these complex molecules. A pared-down alternative, a single-domain antibody called a nanobody, is easier and less expensive to produce. Nanobodies are also more stable and can potentially be administered through simple inhalation. A team of researchers are designing, characterizing, and improving nanobodies that are effective against the COVID-19 virus.

April 2021
Ryo Noguchi, University of Tokyo, Takeshi Kondo, University of Tokyo

Spintronics is analogous to electronics, where an electron’s spin state is used to store information rather than, or in addition to, the charge. Potential uses for spintronics include storing information in electron spin, which is not disturbed by magnetic fields nor affects neighboring electrons like electron charge. Spintronics is considered one of the most promising emerging fields of research, having the potential to improve electronic devices’ speed, power use, and size. New materials are needed that are stable and achieve certain exotic quantum properties for spintronics to advance. A search for a suitable higher-order topological insulator (HOTI) is underway.

Angle-resolved photoelectron spectroscopy
April 2021
Bogdan F. Popescu, University of Saskatchewan, Claudia F. Lucchinetti, Mayo Clinic

Evidence gathered over the last 40 years suggests that a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) includes different types of diseases, but MS is usually treated as one disease. MS is defined by a loss of myelin that surrounds the axons of neurons and inflammation, which leads to serious outcomes like paralysis, blindness, and bowel and bladder problems. Yet the causes and effective treatments of these symptoms may vary widely. Treatments that are developed to treat all MS patients have variable outcomes in individuals, and the underlying pathology of the disease also varies in different patients. Previous studies of MS lesions have revealed four distinct types (immunopatterns I, II, III and IV). Each pattern may respond better to a different treatment.

BL2-3, BL10-2a
March 2021
Charlotta Tiberg, Swedish Technical Institute, Carin Sjöstedt, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Karin Karlfeldt Fedje, Chalmers University of Technology
Figure 1

When trash is burned for energy, a residue called bottom ash (BA) is left behind. Each year the European Union alone creates millions of tons of BA, which can be used for construction after treatment. It is concerning that BA may contain metals like copper and zinc that leach into the environment, potentially harming wild life and, people. The amount of these metals in the ash does not indicate whether the material is a potential hazard since these metals are more or less able to mobilize into the surrounding environment depending on factors like pH and the solubility of their chemical form. To better understand which chemical forms of copper and zinc exist in bottom ash and if there is much variation between different ashes, a team of scientists from Sweden analyzed six samples from different waste-to-energy plants.

X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy
BL4-1, BL4-3
January 2021
Markus W Ribbe, University of California Irvine

Nitrogen is an essential component for life and often a limiting factor for growth, despite the fact that air is composed of mostly nitrogen. The processing required to turn dinitrogen (N2) gas into a form usable by most living organisms is rare in nature. Breaking the triple bond of N2 requires the enzyme nitrogenase, which is found in some bacteria. The mechanism of nitrogenase, which uses metal ion containing cofactors to catalyze this energetically difficult reaction, is complex and difficult to decipher. A team of researchers has applied a new method to peek at the mechanism of the reaction by looking at the enzyme bound to its metal ion cofactors in an intermediate state.

Macromolecular Crystallography
January 2021
Bryan Rosales, NREL National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Laura E. Mundt, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Switchable photovoltaic windows hold much promise as a new technology to mitigate greenhouse gases that cause climate change. These windows not only automatically and reversibly darken to decrease the need for air conditioning, they generate electricity. One promising active layer is based on metal halide perovskites (MHP), a crystalline material that can harness sunlight.

October 2020
Aimin Liu, University of Texas at San Antonio

The enzyme 3-Hydroxyanthranilate-3,4-dioxygenase (HAO) is critical for the metabolism of the amino acid tryptophan and the synthesis of the important coenzyme nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+). Although the role of this enzyme has been long known, its mechanism and regulation have remained a mystery, because it is difficult to study. HAO creates the unstable product 2-amino-3-carboxymuconic semialdehyde (ACMS) that can self-cyclize into quinolinic acid (QUIN). Because excess amounts of QUIN have been implicated in neurologic diseases, HAO is a potential drug target. A group of scientists have determined the mechanism of the HAO enzyme by applying crystallographic techniques.

Macromolecular Crystallography
October 2020
Yijin Liu (SSRL), Kejie Zhao (Purdue), Jun-Sik Lee (SSRL)

Lithium ion battery technology has made possible our most-used personal electronics.  Improvements in lithium ion battery energy storage, which can lead to advancements in technologies like electric vehicles, depend largely on improvements to the cathode materials. Researchers value Ni-rich NMC (LiNixMnyCozO2; x+y+z ≈ 1, x ≥ y+z) layered oxide materials for their ability to achieve high energy density, but the performance can be limited due to aberrant surface reactions. Characterization these surface reactions and their relationship to the material’s structure will aid in improving NMC materials, but it is a difficult task, requiring new methods. A team of scientists have integrated new experimental tools for studying how the bulk microstructure and the surface chemistry the NMC cathode material are related and affect performance.

BL6-2c, BL13-1
August 2020

In the 1950’s and 60’s a poisoning occurred in Minamata Japan.  In addition to the people, the local cat population was affected with what was called “Dancing Cat Disease” and shortly thereafter neurological signs and symptoms became more prominent in people.  The sickness became known as Minamata Disease.  Eventually it was shown to be a form of organic mercury poisoning.  During the episode, pregnant women who were minimally or not obviously affected delivered infants who had neurological disorders such as seizures, microcephaly, and cerebral palsy.

The local company that caused the pollution employed a physician who played a role in determining the cause.  He found that cats fed chemical effluent from the factory quickly developed signs similar to those seen in people with Minamata Disease. He preserved samples of brain tissue from one of the cats, and remarkably, these samples still exist. An international team of researchers used sophisticated modern techniques to analyze these samples and determine the chemical form of mercury within the tissue.

X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy
BL6-2b, BL7-3
August 2020
Ian Wilson, The Scripps Research Institute

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is causing health and economic havoc on a global scale requiring the development of an effective vaccine and therapeutics. Spike proteins found on the viral surface of SARS-CoV-2 attach to human cells to gain entry. Neutralizing antibodies which target these same spike proteins of the CoV-2 virus would effectively block viral entry.

A research team reviewed data on ~300 antibodies from convalescent patients that target SARS-CoV-2 and found that the gene IGHV3-53 was the most frequently used to produce these antibodies.

Macromolecular Crystallography, Microbeam experiments


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