Tag Archives: Carnegie Institution for Science

Gold’s origin in the universe due to cosmic collision

An hypothesis for gold’s origins was first mentioned here in a May 26, 2016 posting,

The link between this research and my side project on gold nanoparticles is a bit tenuous but this work on the origins for gold and other precious metals being found in the stars is so fascinating and I’m determined to find a connection.

An artist's impression of two neutron stars colliding. (Credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc.) Courtesy: Kavli Foundation

An artist’s impression of two neutron stars colliding. (Credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc.) Courtesy: Kavli Foundation

From a May 19, 2016 news item on phys.org,

The origin of many of the most precious elements on the periodic table, such as gold, silver and platinum, has perplexed scientists for more than six decades. Now a recent study has an answer, evocatively conveyed in the faint starlight from a distant dwarf galaxy.

In a roundtable discussion, published today [May 19, 2016?], The Kavli Foundation spoke to two of the researchers behind the discovery about why the source of these heavy elements, collectively called “r-process” elements, has been so hard to crack.

From the Spring 2016 Kavli Foundation webpage hosting the  “Galactic ‘Gold Mine’ Explains the Origin of Nature’s Heaviest Elements” Roundtable ,

Astronomers studying a galaxy called Reticulum II have just discovered that its stars contain whopping amounts of these metals—collectively known as “r-process” elements (See “What is the R-Process?”). Of the 10 dwarf galaxies that have been similarly studied so far, only Reticulum II bears such strong chemical signatures. The finding suggests some unusual event took place billions of years ago that created ample amounts of heavy elements and then strew them throughout the galaxy’s reservoir of gas and dust. This r-process-enriched material then went on to form Reticulum II’s standout stars.

Based on the new study, from a team of researchers at the Kavli Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the unusual event in Reticulum II was likely the collision of two, ultra-dense objects called neutron stars. Scientists have hypothesized for decades that these collisions could serve as a primary source for r-process elements, yet the idea had lacked solid observational evidence. Now armed with this information, scientists can further hope to retrace the histories of galaxies based on the contents of their stars, in effect conducting “stellar archeology.”

Researchers have confirmed the hypothesis according to an Oct. 16, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Gold’s origin in the Universe has finally been confirmed, after a gravitational wave source was seen and heard for the first time ever by an international collaboration of researchers, with astronomers at the University of Warwick playing a leading role.

Members of Warwick’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Group, Professor Andrew Levan, Dr Joe Lyman, Dr Sam Oates and Dr Danny Steeghs, led observations which captured the light of two colliding neutron stars, shortly after being detected through gravitational waves – perhaps the most eagerly anticipated phenomenon in modern astronomy.

Marina Koren’s Oct. 16, 2017 article for The Atlantic presents a richly evocative view (Note: Links have been removed),

Some 130 million years ago, in another galaxy, two neutron stars spiraled closer and closer together until they smashed into each other in spectacular fashion. The violent collision produced gravitational waves, cosmic ripples powerful enough to stretch and squeeze the fabric of the universe. There was a brief flash of light a million trillion times as bright as the sun, and then a hot cloud of radioactive debris. The afterglow hung for several days, shifting from bright blue to dull red as the ejected material cooled in the emptiness of space.

Astronomers detected the aftermath of the merger on Earth on August 17. For the first time, they could see the source of universe-warping forces Albert Einstein predicted a century ago. Unlike with black-hole collisions, they had visible proof, and it looked like a bright jewel in the night sky.

But the merger of two neutron stars is more than fireworks. It’s a factory.

Using infrared telescopes, astronomers studied the spectra—the chemical composition of cosmic objects—of the collision and found that the plume ejected by the merger contained a host of newly formed heavy chemical elements, including gold, silver, platinum, and others. Scientists estimate the amount of cosmic bling totals about 10,000 Earth-masses of heavy elements.

I’m not sure exactly what this image signifies but it did accompany Koren’s article so presumably it’s a representation of colliding neutron stars,

NSF / LIGO / Sonoma State University /A. Simonnet. Downloaded from: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/the-making-of-cosmic-bling/543030/

An Oct. 16, 2017 University of Warwick press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item on phys.org, provides more detail,

Huge amounts of gold, platinum, uranium and other heavy elements were created in the collision of these compact stellar remnants, and were pumped out into the universe – unlocking the mystery of how gold on wedding rings and jewellery is originally formed.

The collision produced as much gold as the mass of the Earth. [emphasis mine]

This discovery has also confirmed conclusively that short gamma-ray bursts are directly caused by the merging of two neutron stars.

The neutron stars were very dense – as heavy as our Sun yet only 10 kilometres across – and they collided with each other 130 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, in a relatively old galaxy that was no longer forming many stars.

They drew towards each other over millions of light years, and revolved around each other increasingly quickly as they got closer – eventually spinning around each other five hundred times per second.

Their merging sent ripples through the fabric of space and time – and these ripples are the elusive gravitational waves spotted by the astronomers.

The gravitational waves were detected by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Adv-LIGO) on 17 August this year [2017], with a short duration gamma-ray burst detected by the Fermi satellite just two seconds later.

This led to a flurry of observations as night fell in Chile, with a first report of a new source from the Swope 1m telescope.

Longstanding collaborators Professor Levan and Professor Nial Tanvir (from the University of Leicester) used the facilities of the European Southern Observatory to pinpoint the source in infrared light.

Professor Levan’s team was the first one to get observations of this new source with the Hubble Space Telescope. It comes from a galaxy called NGC 4993, 130 million light years away.

Andrew Levan, Professor in the Astronomy & Astrophysics group at the University of Warwick, commented: “Once we saw the data, we realised we had caught a new kind of astrophysical object. This ushers in the era of multi-messenger astronomy, it is like being able to see and hear for the first time.”

Dr Joe Lyman, who was observing at the European Southern Observatory at the time was the first to alert the community that the source was unlike any seen before.

He commented: “The exquisite observations obtained in a few days showed we were observing a kilonova, an object whose light is powered by extreme nuclear reactions. This tells us that the heavy elements, like the gold or platinum in jewellery are the cinders, forged in the billion degree remnants of a merging neutron star.”

Dr Samantha Oates added: “This discovery has answered three questions that astronomers have been puzzling for decades: what happens when neutron stars merge? What causes the short duration gamma-ray bursts? Where are the heavy elements, like gold, made? In the space of about a week all three of these mysteries were solved.”

Dr Danny Steeghs said: “This is a new chapter in astrophysics. We hope that in the next few years we will detect many more events like this. Indeed, in Warwick we have just finished building a telescope designed to do just this job, and we expect it to pinpoint these sources in this new era of multi-messenger astronomy”.

Congratulations to all of the researchers involved in this work!

Many, many research teams were  involved. Here’s a sampling of their news releases which focus on their areas of research,

University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/uotw-wti101717.php

Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/wios-cns101717.php

Carnegie Institution for Science (US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/cifs-dns101217.php

Northwestern University (US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/nu-adc101617.php

National Radio Astronomy Observatory (US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/nrao-ru101317.php

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (Germany)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/m-gwf101817.php

Penn State (Pennsylvania State University; US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/ps-stl101617.php

University of California – Davis

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/uoc–cns101717.php

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) magazine, Science, has published seven papers on this research. Here’s an Oct. 16, 2017 AAAS news release with an overview of the papers,

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/aaft-btf101617.php

I’m sure there are more news releases out there and that there will be many more papers published in many journals, so if this interests, I encourage you to keep looking.

Two final pieces I’d like to draw your attention to: one answers basic questions and another focuses on how artists knew what to draw when neutron stars collide.

Keith A Spencer’s Oct. 18, 2017 piece on salon.com answers a lot of basic questions for those of us who don’t have a background in astronomy. Here are a couple of examples,

What is a neutron star?

Okay, you know how atoms have protons, neutrons, and electrons in them? And you know how protons are positively charged, and electrons are negatively charged, and neutrons are neutral?

Yeah, I remember that from watching Bill Nye as a kid.

Totally. Anyway, have you ever wondered why the negatively-charged electrons and the positively-charged protons don’t just merge into each other and form a neutral neutron? I mean, they’re sitting there in the atom’s nucleus pretty close to each other. Like, if you had two magnets that close, they’d stick together immediately.

I guess now that you mention it, yeah, it is weird.

Well, it’s because there’s another force deep in the atom that’s preventing them from merging.

It’s really really strong.

The only way to overcome this force is to have a huge amount of matter in a really hot, dense space — basically shove them into each other until they give up and stick together and become a neutron. This happens in very large stars that have been around for a while — the core collapses, and in the aftermath, the electrons in the star are so close to the protons, and under so much pressure, that they suddenly merge. There’s a big explosion and the outer material of the star is sloughed off.

Okay, so you’re saying under a lot of pressure and in certain conditions, some stars collapse and become big balls of neutrons?

Pretty much, yeah.

So why do the neutrons just stick around in a huge ball? Aren’t they neutral? What’s keeping them together? 

Gravity, mostly. But also the strong nuclear force, that aforementioned weird strong force. This isn’t something you’d encounter on a macroscopic scale — the strong force only really works at the type of distances typified by particles in atomic nuclei. And it’s different, fundamentally, than the electromagnetic force, which is what makes magnets attract and repel and what makes your hair stick up when you rub a balloon on it.

So these neutrons in a big ball are bound by gravity, but also sticking together by virtue of the strong nuclear force. 

So basically, the new ball of neutrons is really small, at least, compared to how heavy it is. That’s because the neutrons are all clumped together as if this neutron star is one giant atomic nucleus — which it kinda is. It’s like a giant atom made only of neutrons. If our sun were a neutron star, it would be less than 20 miles wide. It would also not be something you would ever want to get near.

Got it. That means two giant balls of neutrons that weighed like, more than our sun and were only ten-ish miles wide, suddenly smashed into each other, and in the aftermath created a black hole, and we are just now detecting it on Earth?

Exactly. Pretty weird, no?

Spencer does a good job of gradually taking you through increasingly complex explanations.

For those with artistic interests, Neel V. Patel tries to answer a question about how artists knew what draw when neutron stars collided in his Oct. 18, 2017 piece for Slate.com,

All of these things make this discovery easy to marvel at and somewhat impossible to picture. Luckily, artists have taken up the task of imagining it for us, which you’ve likely seen if you’ve already stumbled on coverage of the discovery. Two bright, furious spheres of light and gas spiraling quickly into one another, resulting in a massive swell of lit-up matter along with light and gravitational waves rippling off speedily in all directions, towards parts unknown. These illustrations aren’t just alluring interpretations of a rare phenomenon; they are, to some extent, the translation of raw data and numbers into a tangible visual that gives scientists and nonscientists alike some way of grasping what just happened. But are these visualizations realistic? Is this what it actually looked like? No one has any idea. Which is what makes the scientific illustrators’ work all the more fascinating.

“My goal is to represent what the scientists found,” says Aurore Simmonet, a scientific illustrator based at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. Even though she said she doesn’t have a rigorous science background (she certainly didn’t know what a kilonova was before being tasked to illustrate one), she also doesn’t believe that type of experience is an absolute necessity. More critical, she says, is for the artist to have an interest in the subject matter and in learning new things, as well as a capacity to speak directly to scientists about their work.

Illustrators like Simmonet usually start off work on an illustration by asking the scientist what’s the biggest takeaway a viewer should grasp when looking at a visual. Unfortunately, this latest discovery yielded a multitude of papers emphasizing different conclusions and highlights. With so many scientific angles, there’s a stark challenge in trying to cram every important thing into a single drawing.

Clearly, however, the illustrations needed to center around the kilonova. Simmonet loves colors, so she began by discussing with the researchers what kind of color scheme would work best. The smash of two neutron stars lends itself well to deep, vibrant hues. Simmonet and Robin Dienel at the Carnegie Institution for Science elected to use a wide array of colors and drew bright cracking to show pressure forming at the merging. Others, like Luis Calcada at the European Southern Observatory, limited the color scheme in favor of emphasizing the bright moment of collision and the signal waves created by the kilonova.

Animators have even more freedom to show the event, since they have much more than a single frame to play with. The Conceptual Image Lab at NASA’s [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Goddard Space Flight Center created a short video about the new findings, and lead animator Brian Monroe says the video he and his colleagues designed shows off the evolution of the entire process: the rising action, climax, and resolution of the kilonova event.

The illustrators try to adhere to what the likely physics of the event entailed, soliciting feedback from the scientists to make sure they’re getting it right. The swirling of gas, the direction of ejected matter upon impact, the reflection of light, the proportions of the objects—all of these things are deliberately framed such that they make scientific sense. …

Do take a look at Patel’s piece, if for no other reason than to see all of the images he has embedded there. You may recognize Aurore Simmonet’s name from the credit line in the second image I have embedded here.

Inside-out plants show researchers how cellulose forms

Strictly speaking this story of tricking cellulose into growing on the surface rather than the interior of a cell is not a nanotechnology topic but I imagine that the folks who research nanocellulose materials will find this work of great interest. An Oct. 8, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily describes the research,

Researchers have been able to watch the interior cells of a plant synthesize cellulose for the first time by tricking the cells into growing on the plant’s surface.

“The bulk of the world’s cellulose is produced within the thickened secondary cell walls of tissues hidden inside the plant body,” says University of British Columbia Botany PhD candidate Yoichiro Watanabe, lead author of the paper published this week in Science.

“So we’ve never been able to image the cells in high resolution as they produce this all-important biological material inside living plants.”

An Oct. 8, 2015 University of British Columbia (UBC) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, explains the interest in cellulose,

Cellulose, the structural component of cell walls that enables plants to stay upright, is the most abundant biopolymer on earth. It’s a critical resource for pulp and paper, textiles, building materials, and renewable biofuels.

“In order to be structurally sound, plants have to lay down their secondary cell walls very quickly once the plant has stopped growing, like a layer of concrete with rebar,” says UBC botanist Lacey Samuels, one of the senior authors on the paper.

“Based on our study, it appears plant cells need both a high density of the enzymes that create cellulose, and their rapid movement across the cell surface, to make this happen so quickly.”

This work, the culmination of years of research by four UBC graduate students supervised by UBC Forestry researcher Shawn Mansfield and Samuels, was facilitated by a collaboration with the Nara Institute of Technology in Japan to create the special plant lines, and researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University to conduct the live cell imaging.

“This is a major step forward in our understanding of how plants synthesize their walls, specifically cellulose,” says Mansfield. “It could have significant implications for the way plants are bred or selected for improved or altered cellulose ultrastructural traits – which could impact industries ranging from cellulose nanocrystals to toiletries to structural building products.”

The researchers used a modified line of Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard, to conduct the experiment. The resulting plants look exactly like their non-modified parents, until they are triggered to make secondary cell walls on their exterior.

One of the other partners in this research, Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution of Science published an Oct. 8, 2015 news release on EurekAlert focusing on other aspects of the research (Note: Some of this is repetitive),

Now scientists, including Carnegie’s David Ehrhardt and Heather Cartwright, have exploited a new way to watch the trafficking of the proteins that make cellulose in the formation cell walls in real time. They found that organization of this trafficking by structural proteins called microtubules, combined with the high density and rapid rate of these cellulose producing enzymes explains how thick and high strength secondary walls are built. This basic knowledge helps us understand plants can stand upright, which was essential for the move of plants from the sea to the land, and may useful for engineering plants with improved mechanical properties for to increase yields or to produce novel bio-materials. The research is published in Science.

The live-cell imaging was conducted at Carnegie with colleagues from the University of British Columbia (UBC) using customized high-end instrumentation. For the first time, it directly tracked cellulose production to observe how xylem cells, cells that transport water and some nutrients, make cellulose for their secondary cell walls. Strong walls are based on a high density of enzymes that catalyze the synthesis of cellulose (called cellulose synthase enzymes) and their rapid movement across the xylem cell surface.

Watching xylem cells lay down cellulose in real time has not been possible before, because the vascular tissues of plants are hidden inside the plant body. Lead author Yoichiro Watanabe of UBC applied a system developed by colleagues at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology to trick plants into making xylem cells on their surface. The researchers fluorescently tagged a cellulose synthase enzyme of the experimental plant Arabidopsis to track the activity using high-end microscopes.

“For me, one of the most exciting aspects of this study was being able to observe how the microtubule cytoskeleton was actively directing the synthesis of the new cell walls at the level of individual enzymes. We can guess how a complex cellular process works from static snapshots, which is what we usually have had to work from in biology, but you can’t really understand the process until you can see it in action. ” remarked Carnegie’s David Ehrhardt.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Visualization of cellulose synthases in Arabidopsis secondary cell walls by Y. Watanabe, M. J. Meents, L. M. McDonnell, S. Barkwill, A. Sampathkumar, H. N. Cartwright, T. Demura, D. W. Ehrhardt, A.L. Samuels, & S. D. Mansfield. Science 9 October 2015: Vol. 350 no. 6257 pp. 198-203 DOI: 10.1126/science.aac7446

This paper is behind a paywall.

With all of this talk of visualization, it’s only right that the researchers have made an image from their work available,

 Caption: An image of artificially-produced cellulose in cells on the surface of a modified Arabidopsis thaliana plant. Credit: University of British Columbia.

Caption: An image of artificially-produced cellulose in cells on the surface of a modified Arabidopsis thaliana plant. Credit: University of British Columbia.

 

SWEET, sweet transporters

A Sept. 4, 2014 news item on Azonano is all about sugar,

Sugars are an essential source of energy for microrganisms, animals and humans. They are produced by plants, which convert energy from sunlight into chemical energy in the form of sugars through photosynthesis.

These sugars are taken up into cells, no matter whether these are bacteria, yeast, human cells or plant cells, by proteins that create sugar-specific pores in the membrane that surrounds a cell. These transport proteins are thus essential in all organisms. It is not surprising that the transporters of humans and plants are very similar since they evolved from their bacterial ancestors.

Sugar transporters can also be a source of vulnerability for plants and animals alike. In plants they can be susceptible to takeover by pathogens, hijacking the source of the plant’s food and energy. In animals, mutations in sugar transporters can lead to diseases, such as diabetes.

New work from a team led by the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Liang Feng and including Carnegie’s [Carnegie Institution for Science] Wolf Frommer has for the first time elucidated the atomic structures of the prototype of the sugar transporters (termed “SWEET” transporters) in plants and humans. These are bacterial sugar transporters, called SemiSWEETs (because they are just half the size of the human and plant ones). …

A Sept. 3, 2014 Carnegie Institution for Science news release, which originated the news item, describes the importance of understanding these transporters,

Until now, there was very limited information about the unique structures of these important transport proteins, which it turns out are different from all other known sugar transporters.

Discovering the structure of these proteins is important, as it is the key to unlocking the mechanism by which they work. And understanding their mechanism is crucial for figuring out what happens when these functions fail to work properly, because that knowledge can help in addressing the resulting diseases or growth problems in both plants and animals.

The research team performed a combination of structural and functional analyses of SemiSWEETs and SWEETs and was able to crystallize two examples in different states, demonstrating not only the protein’s structure, but much about its functionality as well.

They found that the SemiSWEETs do not act as a sugar channel, or tunnel, which allow sugars to pass across the membrane. Rather they act like an airlock, moving the sugars in multiple stages, two of which can be observed in the crystal structures. The SemiSWEETs, among the smallest known transport proteins, assemble in pairs, thereby creating a structure that looks like their bigger plant and human SWEET homologs. This marks the SWEET family of proteins as drastically different from other sugar transport proteins.

“One of the most-exciting parts of this discovery is the speed with which we were able to move from discovering these novel sugar transporters, to determining their actual structure, to showing how they work,” Frommer said. “Fantastic progress made possible by a collaboration with a structural biologist from Stanford University. Our findings highlight the potential practical applications of this information in improving crop yields as well as in addressing human diseases.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Structures of bacterial homologues of SWEET transporters in two distinct conformations by Yan Xu, Yuyong Tao, Lily S. Cheung, Chao Fan, Li-Qing Chen, Sophia Xu, Kay Perry, Wolf B. Frommer, & Liang Feng. Nature (2014) doi:10.1038/nature13670 Published online 03 September 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.