Brookhaven National Laboratory

From January 2016 to April 2016, I was a science communications intern with the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. My role in this position was to write feature stories and news releases as well as create social media posts for the Lab's online presence. 

What are Aerosols?

Brookhaven scientists discuss complexities of studying tiny particles that have a big impact on climate

Photo taken by Sedlacek from the plane as it circles a massive wildfire plum in Washington state in 2013.

Photo taken by Sedlacek from the plane as it circles a massive wildfire plum in Washington state in 2013.

By Cassie Kelly, March 31, 2016

Art Sedlacek flies on a plane through wildfire plumes to collect data on aerosols.

Art Sedlacek flies on a plane through wildfire plumes to collect data on aerosols.

Art Sedlacek, an atmospheric scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, has gone to extreme lengths to study aerosols—tiny particles emitted from factories, forest fires, car exhaust, and sometimes from natural sources. He has flown on planes outfitted with high tech equipment through wildfire plumes and over the ocean, and has visited stations all over the globe to observe these particles and understand their potentially big impact on climate. But scientists’ grasp on the roles these particles play in Earth’s energy balance, not to mention public understanding of that impact, is still evolving.

For some people, the term “aerosol” refers to the propellant in a spray can — because substances like hairspray and spray paint come out of those cans as a mist of small particles. But, as Sedlacek points out, “aerosols are so much more than just what is in your hairspray can.”

Scientists define an aerosol as a suspension of particles in the atmosphere. They have both man-made and natural sources. For example, Sedlacek explains, aerosols can form naturally when pine trees release a chemical called alpha-pinene, an oil that condenses into particles that can be seen suspended as a haze—for example, above the Smoky Mountains (giving them their name). Other types of aerosol particles form during combustion or other industrial processes in factories and car engines, from burning biomass (such as trees and brush) to clear land for agriculture, and even in cooking fires.  

Sedlacek’s goal is to understand the impact aerosols have on Earth’s climate system. 

“Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have a large effect on climate because they trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet,” Sedlacek said. “However, when we look at our estimates of how much warming we should be seeing based on the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, something is off. The warming should be greater, which leads us to assume that something else is mitigating the effect of these gases on warming.”

How aerosols offset warming from greenhouse gases

Aerosols are suspensions of tiny particles in the atmosphere, and have both anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) sources such as industrial processes and car emissions, and natural sources such as forest fires, volcanoes, and wave-breaking in the ocean. Aerosol particles affect Earth's climate, both individually and by serving as the nuclei around which cloud drops form, by influencing how much solar energy is absorbed by Earth (including the oceans, atmosphere, and land) or is reflected back into space. Collecting accurate data and achieving better understanding of the roles in which aerosols participate is thus crucial to understanding their effects on Earth's climate.

Aerosols are suspensions of tiny particles in the atmosphere, and have both anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) sources such as industrial processes and car emissions, and natural sources such as forest fires, volcanoes, and wave-breaking in the ocean. Aerosol particles affect Earth's climate, both individually and by serving as the nuclei around which cloud drops form, by influencing how much solar energy is absorbed by Earth (including the oceans, atmosphere, and land) or is reflected back into space. Collecting accurate data and achieving better understanding of the roles in which aerosols participate is thus crucial to understanding their effects on Earth's climate.

What Sedlacek and other scientists at Brookhaven and elsewhere in the atmospheric science community have determined is that aerosols help to resolve this discrepancy. “When we take into account how aerosols interact with incoming solar radiant energy—the dominant source of the energy in Earth's climate system—we can reconcile the less-than-expected warming of our atmosphere.”

Most aerosols in the atmosphere only scatter light from the sun, sending some of the sun's radiant energy back to space and exerting a cooling influence on Earth's climate. Other aerosol particles, termed “black carbon” and “brown carbon”—typically created from wildfires, industrial processes, and car exhaust—can both scatter and absorb light from the sun. Depending on the extent of these two processes, these black and brown carbon aerosols may exert a warming influence or a cooling influence on our atmosphere. Think about what happens when you walk outside on a sunny day wearing a black shirt. You warm up much quicker than when wearing a light-colored shirt because black absorbs the light. With aerosol particles both reflecting and absorbing light, it becomes challenging to quantify their net effect on the climate system. 

How aerosols impact cloud formations

Ernie Lewis, atmospheric scientist at Brookhaven, has lead the way for projects with ARM and MAGIC to understand aerosols.

Ernie Lewis, atmospheric scientist at Brookhaven, has lead the way for projects with ARM and MAGIC to understand aerosols.

Another essential role aerosols play in the climate system is their ability to form clouds. Cloud drops form when water condenses on aerosol particles, explains Ernie Lewis, another atmospheric scientist at Brookhaven Lab. Clouds, too, can exert either a warming or a cooling effect on Earth's climate. 

“Clouds work differently than greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” said Lewis. “If I put more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it’s going to block the heat emitted from the Earth and trap it in the atmosphere, which warms the planet. But while clouds also absorb some of the heat emitted from Earth and warm the planet, they also scatter incoming light from the sun back to space, cooling the planet. So, there are two competing effects.” 

From their research, atmospheric scientists have determined that the effects clouds and aerosols have on the climate system is offsetting warming from greenhouse gases—which ultimately explains why scientists haven’t seen as much warming as expected from the levels of greenhouse gases.

The challenges of studying aerosols

The biggest challenge scientists face when studying how aerosols impact climate is that this impact is such a small fraction of the overall energy Earth receives from the sun.

Each square meter of Earth receives 340 watts of radiant energy from the sun on a global, daily average. About 30 percent of that energy is reflected back into space (e.g., by clouds), leaving about 230 watts per square meter that is absorbed by Earth—in the atmosphere, the oceans, and by the land. The effect of greenhouse gases on Earth's climate is only around one percent of that amount, and the effect of aerosols, through scattering and absorbing the sun's radiant energy, is an even smaller fraction. Sedlacek explains that it is determining this small signal that makes studying the effects of aerosols so challenging.  

“Thinking on such a small scale has proven to be a challenge,” he said. “But even small changes can have a big effect on climate. A few percent increase in the incoming solar energy absorbed by Earth can bring us over the top into runaway climate heating; conversely, a few percent decrease could send us into an ice age.” 

Another challenge is that aerosol particles are very tiny, generally less than one micrometer (millionth of a meter) in diameter; to put that into perspective, the diameter of a strand of human hair is about 75 micrometers. And because the aerosol particles are so small, it is extremely difficult to gather the data scientists need to analyze aerosols’ effects on climate. 

When Sedlacek flies on a plane through a plume of a forest fire, he has to make sure that his equipment collects enough particles to determine their properties—things like size, light absorption ability, and chemical makeup—so that the effects of these aerosols on the climate system can be determined. The equipment is very sensitive, and obtaining sufficiently accurate data while flying through thick smoke at 150 miles per hour to collect microscopic samples is extremely challenging. But, conducting such detailed, accurate measurements is essential to improving our understanding of Earth's climate system, and is especially important in a world where humans continue to emit both greenhouse gases and aerosols, the scientists say. 

“For those of us studying aerosols, it’s a fascinatingly complex problem,” said Sedlacek. “And while this complexity challenges our observational and modeling capabilities, aerosols are a critical component of our atmosphere. If we want to better quantify climate change, we must not only understand greenhouse gases, but aerosols as well.” 

To read the full article on BNL News, click here

Meet Intern Cecilia Osorio: Merging Multiscale Images at NSLS-II

By Cassie Kelly, March 18, 2016

Cecilia Osorio, a 20-year-old sophomore from California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB), and current intern with the Office of Educational Programs at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, is tackling a significant software challenge at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II). This DOE Office of Science User Facility produces extremely bright x-rays and other forms of light to reveal intricate details of materials that make up batteries and solar films, the atomic structure of proteins, the chemical content of cells, and much more. But to make the most of the facility’s capabilities, scientists need a way to combine the data images that they collect so critical details are not lost.

Osorio is one of thirteen interns currently at Brookhaven as part of the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program sponsored by DOE’s Office of Science.  Her goal as a SULI intern is to find a way to precisely merge images collected with conventional light microscopes and those made using NSLS-II’s X-rays or infrared light, which will allow scientists to analyze the complementary data more effectively. Solving this problem by improving on the capabilities of data-merging software will make use of the specialized computing and mathematical skills Osorio has been learning for the past two years at CSUB.

“Solving complex problems has always been my motivation for everything,” she said.

Osorio grew up in Bakersfield, California, a lively city that has been expanding rapidly, just two hours north of Los Angeles. Her parents, both in the agricultural industry, moved from Mexico to Bakersfield before starting their family of six children to give them better opportunities in life. Osorio, the second youngest, has always taken her schooling very seriously—particularly science and math-based classes.  Her knowledge in math has often helped her parents with their finances, and in 5thgrade, Osorio won first place in a science fair competition. 

In her junior year of high school, Osorio joined Project Lead The Way, using her “free period” each day for an additional class in engineering. After two years of classes in biotechnical engineering and design and development, she had made up her mind to become a computer engineer.

“Computer engineering is very complex and it is a mixture of everything I like, from coding and physics to math and much more,” she said. “It reminds me of Sudoku puzzles; you are being challenged to think fast.”

Osorio is majoring in computer engineering and minoring in sociology at CSUB. She’s also a member of several on-campus clubs involving math, computer science, and engineering, as well as the National Society of Leadership and Success.

She interned at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory during the summer of 2015, where she learned computer algorithms to analyze data images. That internship has helped her better understand the project she’s now working on at Brookhaven. Under the guidance of mentor Lisa Miller, program manager of imaging and microscopy at NSLS-II, she’s helping to develop ways to use imaging software for scientists’ needs.

A composite image showing how merging data taken using x-ray imaging and visible light can identify the location of iron (green) and copper (blue) on a visible-light image of nerve cells (red). This type of composite imaging is helping scientists study neurodegenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

A composite image showing how merging data taken using x-ray imaging and visible light can identify the location of iron (green) and copper (blue) on a visible-light image of nerve cells (red). This type of composite imaging is helping scientists study neurodegenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Miller explains that when scientists gather data images at one of the NSLS-II X-ray or infrared microscopes, it can be difficult to combine this information with an image of the same specimen made using a conventional light microscope. To get the most benefit out of the data, these images—taken with different pixel sizes and resolutions (from millimeters to nanometers)—need to be precisely overlapped and correlated. But the existing software has trouble locating the similarities in the images using its pattern recognition functions, and is unable to properly align the images.

Scientists often resort to overlapping their many images manually, using programs such as Adobe Photoshop. Their other option is to analyze images individually without knowing how detailed information between the images corresponds.

“We can get beautiful X-ray and infrared images with NSLS-II,” said Miller, who uses these techniques to pinpoint toxic copper ions in protein aggregates associated with Alzheimer’s disease. “If we can’t precisely overlap the visible, infrared, and X-ray images and say ‘there is this much copper in the cell membrane vs. the nucleus vs. the cytoplasm’ we won’t be able to understand the elemental make-up that is crucial to creating new drugs or combatting disease.”

Osorio’s task is to develop the image-analyzing software by digitally placing markers on the image that act as pins on a grid. The software will then be able to align the markers to accurately overlap the images no matter what type of light or pixel size was used.

“I’m thrilled to be working on this project,” Osorio said. “I strongly believe I can find a way to identify a system of markers for correlating visible-light images with X-ray and infrared microscopy images and be able to overlap them.”

Once the program works, it will be able to assist all scientists using the microscopes at NSLS-II, including biologists, physicists, and chemists.

For example, solving the data-merging problem would also help scientists trying to monitor the chemical makeup and structural changes in lithium ion batteries that can cause them to fail after repeated use; those seeking to understand how certain plants take up iron through their roots allowing them to grow in nutrient-poor soils; and even those who use imaging technologies to determine if certain pigments in a painting can identify it as a forgery.

“We have users at NSLS-II collecting X-ray images of their samples without being able to compare them to what their eyes can see,” said Miller. “You get powerful data, but without this analysis, it’s much less useful. We’re eager to get this going, because I can see how excited the users are when they come here and we are able to give them these capabilities.”

After Brookhaven, Osorio plans to continue her education straight through to her Ph.D. She is intrigued by technology and the wide range of areas she could expertise in, such as robotics, neural computing for specialized operations, and software and hardware technology. Her ultimate goal is to develop more efficient technology, and motivate other young women to achieve success in their careers.

“It’s really important to me that I succeed and become a role model for young girls who want to pursue a degree in engineering because it is tough being a minority in this field,” she said.

To read the original story in BNL News, click here

Girl Power in STEM: Step It Up!

International Women's Day Celebration

By Cassie Kelly, March 1, 2016

Each year, the United Nations celebrates and encourages women across the globe to achieve success in their careers, families, and communities with an International Women’s Day. To celebrate, this year, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, Brookhaven Women in Science (BWIS), and Stony Brook University’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE) groups will co-host a symposium titled “Girl Power in STEM: Step It Up!” The intention is to shine a light on women’s achievements in science and motivate participants to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The event will take place on March 5 at Stony Brook (SBU). It will feature speakers at all career levels from Brookhaven Lab, SBU and other institutions across the country, and focus on the impact of women in STEM fields. 

“It’s a day that helps us look back and celebrate the roles and accomplishments of women in the workforce and society, particularly women who work in STEM fields,” said Vivian Stojanoff, a physicist at Brookhaven Lab who helps coordinate programs for BWIS. “We welcome the participation of students who are considering careers in STEM,” she added. 

Career women face numerous challenges, including juggling personal and professional life, and gaining respect from male counterparts, as well as striving for equal pay and equal opportunity to rise in their field. Women in STEM are no exception to these challenges; in fact, statistics show that women are severely underrepresented in engineering, computer science, and physical sciences.

“Young girls are often not encouraged to perform well in science or math,” said Stojanoff. “I think it is key that parents, family, and teachers support these young women who choose careers in STEM so we may continue to move forward and become equally represented.” 

Girl Power in STEM: Step It Up! will feature 20 speakers — including Brookhaven Lab’s Wei Chen, Amy Nunziata, Karen Wiegart and Gail Mattson, and former Brookhaven interns Catherine Feldman, Linn Mercier, Shirin Mortazavi, Megan Russ, Janna Shaftan, Julie Sundermier, and Kristine Horvat. The speakers will present their unique perspectives of where they are in their careers, how they got there, and offer a one-on-one conversation with attendees in a speed networking session. 

Horvat, an adjunct professor at Farmingdale State College and former WISE student, hopes that the event will provide new perspectives to STEM careers. “We want to showcase a few of the many successful women in STEM and help lead young women in their pursuit of STEM careers,” said Horvat.

Keynote speaker Gail Mattson, Associate Laboratory Director for Environment, Safety & Health at Brookhaven Lab, will talk about her accomplishments and the importance of women in STEM. “Women often ask why it’s worth it—why put up with the challenges and keep moving forward? I believe it’s because women have so much to contribute and can make huge impacts on our society in so many important ways. We should help them reach their goals,” she said. “I’m hoping to see a lot of professional women there who can encourage our next generation of young women to consider STEM careers and be good role models.” 

To view more about the Girl Power in STEM: Step It Up! Event and the International Women’s Day Celebration visit: https://sites.google.com/a/alumni.stonybrook.edu/international-women-s-day-celebration-2016/home

International Women's Day was first observed on March 8, 1975, during the United Nation’s International Women’s Year. Two years later, the UN General Assembly proclaimed March 8 as the UN Day for women’s rights and world peace. Each year since, the United Nations has been calling attention to women’s issues and celebrating their achievements across the globe on March 8. In 2016, the UN is launching a new initiative “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality.” The focus is on the UN “Women’s Step it Up Initiative,” which proposes the implementation of sustainable goals and commitments on women’s empowerment, gender equality, and human rights. By sharing knowledge and encouragement to women around the world, the UN’s International Women’s Day initiative aims to achieve complete equality between men and women in all fields by 2030.

To read the original story in BNL News, click here

Brookhaven/Stony Brook University Chemist Esther Takeuchi Featured in Scientist Trading Cards

By Cassie Kelly, February 23, 2016

Esther Takeuchi shows off her scientist trading card collection, including one card featuring her as a prominent member of the Electrochemical Society.

Esther Takeuchi shows off her scientist trading card collection, including one card featuring her as a prominent member of the Electrochemical Society.

Trading cards aren’t just for athletes anymore. Members of the Electrochemical Society (ECS) have compiled a deck of 50 cards featuring both historical and contemporary scientists, including Esther Takeuchi, chief scientist in the Energy Sciences Directorate at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Lab and a distinguished professor in the Department of Chemistry at Stony Brook University.

Takeuchi, a world-renowned battery expert, was featured in the deck as a “woman who changed ECS” because of her role as a president of the Society from 2011 to 2012. 

“These cards say science is cool, collectable, and tradable,” said Takeuchi. “Science is not usually thought of in that context at all.” 

The cards were first introduced at the ECS biannual conference in Phoenix, Arizona, in October 2015. Rob Gerth, director of Marketing and Digital Engagement at ECS, came up with the idea as a way to promote scientists. 

“Regular people don’t know what electrochemists do, so we needed to come up with a way to make them more popular or interesting and known for what they do,” said Gerth. 

The cards feature historical figures like Thomas Edison—who was one of the original members of ECS—as well as Michael Faraday and Herbert Dow. They also feature scientists who have contemporary significance, like those involved in the innovations of batteries and cell phones. 

In addition to being a former president of ECS, Takeuchi holds more than 150 patents, the most of any woman in America. Her area of expertise is in energy storage and technology, and one of her biggest breakthroughs was inventing the compact lithium battery featured in implantable heart defibrillators.

Gerth says selecting scientists like Takeuchi for the first stack of cards was very challenging. He wanted to include prominent electrochemists that people can recognize for their inventions and advances that have impact on society. 

“These aren’t only for the outside world, but for scientists as well,” said Gerth. “When you pass someone while walking down the hall, you might not be aware that they invented the hard drive for your computer. Scientists have a great impact on our everyday life, and this is just one way of getting to know them.”

Takeuchi is thrilled to have her own card and to continue trading. She would also like to see the idea of trading cards catch on among other scientific communities like the American Physical Society.

“I would love to see other societies motivated to have their own trading cards,” she said. “It’s a really neat way to connect with one another.”

Gerth said a new deck of scientist trading cards will be traded at the next ECS conference in San Diego, California, this spring.

To read the original story on BNL News, click here

AWARE Project Launched to Gain New Insights on Climate of Antarctica

By Cassie Kelly, February 10, 2016

AWARE scanning cloud radars and the ARM Mobile Facility near McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Credit: ARM Climate Research Facility

AWARE scanning cloud radars and the ARM Mobile Facility near McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Credit: ARM Climate Research Facility

It has been nearly half a century since scientists have collected extensive climate or atmospheric data from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). But late last year, scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, working with a group led by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, embarked on a new project that will lead to a better understanding of how much of the sun’s light and the atmosphere’s heat radiation reach the Antarctic surface—variables that affect temperature patterns and ice melt throughout the region.  

“We will be analyzing what physical processes are going on for a better understanding of the factors that are governing the surface energy balance in Antarctica,” said Andrew Vogelmann, an atmospheric scientist in the Environmental and Climate Sciences Department at Brookhaven Lab. “This improved understanding can ultimately be used to understand why the Antarctic is warming the way it is.”

The project, known as the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility West Antarctic Radiation Experiment (AWARE), is a joint effort between the DOE and the National Science Foundation. The AWARE team will use instruments deployed by ARM to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica and the ice-core drilling station at the WAIS—one of the most remote science-based stations on Earth. 

The instruments will gather measurements on cloud properties and their effects on atmospheric radiation at the surface and many other factors such as temperature and winds. An aerosol observing system—a mobile atmospheric sampling station designed at Brookhaven Lab and deployed at McMurdo—will also measure aerosols that affect the formation of clouds.  

The instruments will not be measuring long enough to look at the effects of climate change on Antarctica. However, they will be able to look at weather patterns and the processes affecting how solar and thermal energy impact the surface energy balance, which impacts ice melt and, consequently, sea level rise. 

Vogelmann, a co-investigator on the team that helped develop the observation strategy—including what equipment to use and the best placement for it—will be analyzing the cloud and radiation data once it comes off the ice. 

“The WAIS is too remote to transport a large set of instrumentation,” said Vogelmann. “So, we had to figure out the best subset of equipment to get the data we needed. These measurements will be the first ever of WAIS cloud properties and surface radiation.” 

Making up for lost time

The last deployment to the WAIS to study the atmosphere was in 1957, when the International Geophysical Year launched weather balloons that collected data for about 10 years. No significant atmospheric data has been collected there since. 

Map site of the WAIS and McMurdo Stations where AWARE instruments were deployed.

Map site of the WAIS and McMurdo Stations where AWARE instruments were deployed.

Such a challenging deployment seemed like a long shot in 2013, when Vogelmann and Dan Lubin, a physicist at Scripps and lead scientist for AWARE, collaborated with the team on the proposal. So Vogelmann was delighted when the DOE approved the project. An ARM crew was dispatched to begin setting up instruments last November. 

The AWARE equipment, which includes a series of cloud radars and a high spectral resolution lidar, will capture the complex effects of weather patterns on the clouds and surface energy balance. These weather patterns can be affected by what is happening in the tropics and middle latitudes, said Vogelmann.

“It’s not so easy to say that an event in mid-latitude regions affects Antarctica,” he explained. “So this is an interesting opportunity to see how water vapor and heat from outer latitudes propagate into Antarctica.” 

The equipment was deployed to McMurdo in November 2015, and will collect data for 14 months. The instruments at the WAIS, deployed more recently in December, will be there just for the Antarctic summer months, because conditions are too harsh for the drill site to remain open during the Antarctic winter. 

Cloud patterns are difficult to understand without proper technology. For instance, previous analyses have indicated that mixed-phase clouds occur with different frequencies at McMurdo Station than in the Arctic. These clouds are a combination of ice and water in the same volumes and are difficult for climate models to simulate properly. 

“Mixed-phase clouds have a different radiative signature than just pure water or pure ice,” said Vogelmann. “We hope to be able to use our instruments to understand the frequency of these clouds, their effects on the surface energy budget, and what weather conditions favor their presence.”

One of the more exciting aspects of the study is that the atmosphere in Antarctica, without human influence, is virtually clear of any pollution such as industrial aerosols. So, Vogelmann hopes to compare the results from that “clean” environment sampled by AWARE with the conditions in the Arctic, which is strongly affected by Northern Hemisphere pollution. 

“We get to look at these cloud patterns under pristine conditions,” said Vogelmann. “The WAIS is very cold, very dry, and there are not a lot of aerosol particles. So it will offer an interesting perspective to our understanding formulated from other regions.”

Vogelmann and the team are eager to understand the complexities of this region far better than ever before. “There have been other observations in other areas of Antarctica of a much more limited scope,” said Vogelmann. “This project is setting a whole new bar.”

Read the original article in BNL News, here

Meet Crysten and Ian Blaby

Two new biologists looking at plant genomes to address energy challenges

By Cassie Kelly, January 29, 2016

Ian and Crysten Blaby are exploring the genes of algae to better understand—and potentially improve—plants' ability to harness energy.

Ian and Crysten Blaby are exploring the genes of algae to better understand—and potentially improve—plants' ability to harness energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory welcomes two new biologists, Crysten and Ian Blaby, who have been brought to the Lab to explore the many genes that play a role in a plant’s ability to harness energy and what those genes could mean for enhancing bioenergy crops. 

The organism that brought this dynamic duo to Brookhaven: an alga. Algae are photosynthetic organisms that can be studied to inform scientists’ understanding of how more complex land plants capture and convert energy from the sun. Crysten and Ian conduct lab experiments on a particular single-celled alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, which has been the focus of thousands of studies by researchers who appreciate the benefits of a microbial system for exploring this complex biochemistry. 
 
“Because of the simplicity and fast growth rates of single-celled algae relative to other plants, experiments can be performed at a greater pace. It is also easier to manipulate them and change their growing conditions,” said Ian. “Additionally, they take up much less space than land plants, making algae the perfect model system for our gene-focused research.”

The two are using the alga to study the function of plant genes. “We have a good idea of the function of five to 10 percent of plant genes and can make an estimated guess for the function of 30 to 40 percent,” said Ian. “But, the function of the other remaining 40 to 50 percent is unknown.” 

You can think of the gene sequences as blueprints to what plants do. “If you look at any organism’s blueprints, half of it is written in a strange language that we don’t really understand,” said Crysten. “We are trying to provide a Rosetta Stone of sorts to try to start translating these blueprints.”

The couple are outfitting a laboratory in Brookhaven’s biology department with an advanced experimental platform to process thousands of samples at a time, helping them accelerate their research while avoiding the human error that such high-throughput studies are prone to. Rather than targeting a specific gene for deletion, they grow hundreds of thousands of mutants simultaneously to see which grow better in response to different conditions—such as temperature, light, and nutrient availability. 

Dozens of flasks hold liquid cultures ofChlamydomonas reinhardtii, an algal species that serves as a model for understanding higher plants.

Dozens of flasks hold liquid cultures ofChlamydomonas reinhardtii, an algal species that serves as a model for understanding higher plants.

These large-scale experiments are feasible due to sample miniaturization and machinery that place the algae containing a wide range of random gene deletions throughout the genome into individual culture wells to see which have a survival advantage in response to, say, low levels of nutrients.

“If every single gene has been deleted at least once, we can identify all the genes involved in a process, such as acclimation to high salinity,” said Ian. “The method doesn’t rely on what we already know; this will get us to the 40 to 50 percent of genes we know nothing about.”

Crysten’s expertise is in the study of genes that regulate the levels of metals in cells, how organisms acquire metal ions from the environment, and how those processes are affected when conditions for the plant change. She hopes to track where the metals go when they enter plant cells by studying the proteins and pathways responsible for the trafficking, storage, and delivery of metal ions to target proteins. 

“Not to mention photosynthesis itself, which would be impossible without metal ions,” she said. “Numerous essential chemical reactions in the plant are absolutely dependent on metal ions for catalysis and/or for making sure that many of the cell’s proteins fold properly.” 

In April, she will be working closely with scientists at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) to image metal ions in cells and see how the abundance and location of these essential protein cofactors change in response to environmental challenges. Ultimately, she hopes her research can be used to find ways for bioenergy crops to thrive on non-agricultural or “marginal” soil, which are typically poor in the essential inorganic nutrients that plants need to thrive. 

Ian’s expertise is in plant metabolism. He is looking at photosynthesis and subsequent carbon usage—how plants create energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide (CO2), and water. He hopes to target the genes that make up the transporter proteins involved in that process to build up a more complete image of plant metabolism—and perhaps find ways to drive energy production toward products such as biofuels that would be useful for meeting our energy needs. 

“If we can have an energy source that is being produced by plants, that would mean the carbon is being fixed via energy from the sun and taking CO2 out of the atmosphere,” he said. “So, when the energy source is burned, it’s only putting back what CO2 it took out in the first place; it’s close to carbon neutral.”

The Blaby’s were hired for their expertise in genomics along with a third scientist, Qun Liu, a structural biologist. They are eager to collaborate with other scientists at Brookhaven Lab and are hoping to partner with scientists at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, as well.

“Biology is so complex. A lot of people think about things differently, and as scientists we can sometimes get tunnel vision,” said Crysten. “We need someone else to come along and say ‘think of it this way’ or ‘try this approach.’ We are always excited when an opportunity to collaborate arises.” Just recently the couple discussed ways to collaborate with scientists at Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials.

Ian and Crysten met at the University of Florida while researching bacteria. Before coming to Brookhaven Lab, they worked at UCLA. They have been married for six years and have a two-year-old daughter.  

The Blabys’ research is currently supported by DOE’s Office of Science along with discretionary funds in the Brookhaven Lab Biology Department. NSLS-II and CFN are both DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy.  The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.  For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

To view the original post in BNL News, click here

NSLS Research Leads to New Discoveries About Structure of Human Hair

Scientists resolved the molecular structure of each of the three known regions of human hair—the cuticle, the cortex and the medulla—and discovered a new region between the cortex and the cuticle

By Cassie Kelly, January 27, 2016

To distinguish between the different regions of hair, the scientists had to use a very small x-ray beam at the NSLS.

To distinguish between the different regions of hair, the scientists had to use a very small x-ray beam at the NSLS.

A recent study on the detailed micro-structure of human hair reveals new details about the structure of a single strand of human hair, including new models of the molecular arrangements in two different regions of a hair. The study, published in the November 30, 2015 issue of the journal Scientific Reports, describes a technique that opens new opportunities for researchers to use synchrotron x-ray techniques for the study of a range of biological samples. 

The research was done at the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS), a source of extremely bright x-rays that operated at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory from 1982-2014. It has since been replaced by NSLS-II, a new DOE Office of Science User Facility that produces x-ray beams 10,000 times brighter than its predecessor facility. 

“The method used here—spatially resolved x-ray micro-diffraction—could be used to study all types of mammalian hair to look for differences and similarities across species and human ethnic groups, and could also have commercial applications,” said NSLS-II physicist Kenneth Evans-Lutterodt, who helped conduct the research at NSLS with Vesna Stanic, a scientist at the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory.

The work was a follow-up from a previous study exploring the physical properties of commercial hair products. Before attempting to study the effects of these multi-component products on hair, Stanic and Evans-Lutterodt were curious to understand the molecular arrangements of untreated hair. So they began by collecting samples from young males who had never chemically treated their hair. 

Stanic, a small angle x-ray scattering (SAXS) expert, and Evans-Lutterodt, a micro-beam diffraction expert, then developed an experimental configuration and technique at beamline X13B of NSLS that allowed them to get good quality data on hair. 

Two techniques were key to this experiment. First, the scientists cut cross-sections of the hairs that were just 30-microns thick. Beaming x-rays along the axis of these thin “disk” samples allowed them to obtain separate signals from different regions of the hair.

Using an x-ray kinoform lens, they created an x-ray beam with extremely narrow dimensions—a mere 300 nanometers, or billionths of a meter—smaller than any previously reported experiments on hair. The kinoform lens was fabricated with the help of Aaron Stein of the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) at Brookhaven Lab.

 

“Very few x-ray diffraction experiments have used small x-ray beams on a single hair,” Evans-Lutterodt said. “Also, the elements that make up hair—carbon, oxygen and hydrogen—produce weak scattering signals. These low signal levels made it a challenge to distinguish between the regions of hair, because they have very similar, but not identical structures.” 

With these techniques, the team resolved the molecular structure of each of the three known regions of human hair—the cuticle, the cortex and the medulla—and discovered a completely new region between the cortex and the cuticle. They refer to this new region as the intermediate region. In this region, the alpha-keratin molecules that make up hair acquire an ordered orientation, as opposed to being randomly positioned as they are in the cortex. Additionally, the scientists discovered that the cuticle has a diffraction signal—a type of x-ray derived “fingerprint”—that is characteristic of beta-keratin sheets, and quite different from the spaghetti-like alpha-keratin form found in the cortex.

The researchers expect to continue their work both in Brazil and in the U.S., possibly at NSLS-II. They would like to look at hair from different ethnicities, as well as hair from different species, and ultimately, compare those findings to hair that has been treated with commercial hair products. 

“We hope to use NSLS-II because brighter beams will allow us to have better spatial resolution, provide a better signal to noise ratio, and help us study more samples from different species more quickly,” Stanic said.  

The techniques developed for this research will also advance the capabilities of x-ray imaging to help optimizing the usefulness of NSLS-II for studying other biological samples.

Operations at NSLS/NSLS-II and CFN—all DOE Office of Science User Facilities—are funded by the DOE Office of Science. 

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy.  The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.  For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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