Click hear to also read about making proteins


Alzheimers and Amyloid
A novel crop circle in the Oxfordshire Countryside
by Helen Gavaghan, March 2009 at
Diamond synchrotron research facility

Alzheimers & amyloid plaque (far left) made by Shiplake Womens' Institute. Detail from the molecular structure panel (below), made by Langford Village Womens Institute. Design by Anne Griffiths. Panels photographed by Andrew Brookes. Design for life will be shown at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition.

molecular structures

Carrying my trusty copy of the Encyclopaedia of Physics, edited by Rita G. Lerner and George L. Trigg - and how I wish I had known of the existence of a tome like this when I was an undergraduate - I trundled across the middle of England from Yorkshire to Didcot. My destination: the Diamond Synchrotron Research Facility.

I was excited. It looked in the annual report (2007/8) like a fascinating installation. When I first heard in 2000 of the possibility of a new synchrotron in the UK, debate about the location of the proposed facility was mired in controversy. With such a prestigious project at stake, with all its attendant work, that is not surprising. Each job at Diamond, says Gerd Materlik, the facility's chief executive officer, spun off more in the local economy, from additional taxi drivers and catering suppliers, to trades and the hotel where visiting scientists stay.

I had touched on the battles in a careers-for-scientists feature that Nature published 5th April 2001. How, I wondered, had matters progressed, and what did they think in Oxfordshire of the prize they had won?

My first local encounter was not promising, because my effort to deviate from instructions that I take a taxi to Diamond netted the response from the bus driver: "I have never heard of Diamond, and I do not know where it is." But he was new to the area. I retreated. To the taxi rank. They had heard of Diamond. It turns out to be near Harwell, which I knew of as the UK's first nuclear establishment, and which is now home to much other UK-based science.

Diamond is the UK's newest and, arguably, most prestigious piece of scientific kit. One specially designed for revealing the structure of biological and physical matter. It is far from complete, but it is operational.

This powerhouse of research looks like a UFO has landed in the Oxfordshire countryside. Low rise, vast, circular and symmetrical, gleaming a polished, shining gray. The numbers for the machine's circumference fall out of the equations for synchrotron radiation of a particular energy level. One of those things, says Materlik, which is no great secret. Just something you know, or can calculate, if you are a physicist dealing with synchrotrons - part of their global commons. The sort of thing chatted about over coffee without thought or need for peer-reviewed publication. But, as always with science, and, as someone said as I toured Diamond, what is trivia today was once hard science.

Diamond accelerates electrons to close to the speed of light, then injects them into a giant toroid that confines them, physically and with magnets, to a circular path. As the electrons' velocity changes on their way round the toroid, electromagnetic radiation is emitted. In places specially designed magnets modulate the electrons' movement so that the wavelength of the radiation they emit is a controlled coherent beam. That controlled beam of radiation - finer that a human hair - is guided down a "beamline" to an experimental hutch, where it is used as an experimental tool. More electromagnetic tweaking than varying wavelength alone turns the beams on different beamlines into a particularly sophisticated tool kit that allows experimenters to exploit the interactions between the beams' physical properties and those of any sample placed in their pathway to learn something of the structure and dynamics of the sample.

For example, inserting a crystal of a human protein in the beamline gives a pattern of scattered radiation on a photographic plate that can be used to work out what structure could have caused that pattern. And now that the era of petabyte computing is here - a petabyte is a kilobyte of terabytes - enough data can be stored to sample dynamic systems. Observing the fine detail of the timing of molecular dynamics still lies just beyond reach, says Materlik.

Materlik first became director of a synchrotron research facility 25 years ago in Hamburg, Germany, at the Daisy synchrotron. His enthusiasm was sparked as a Ph.D student in 1973 when he listened to a talk given by a Catalan scientist, and he went away to study key papers. He realised that in his electrodynamic work as an undergraduate he had already learned about synchrotron radiation. By the time Materlik was a Ph.D student, synchrotrons were used in parasitic mode, which means that the machine was dedicated (eV and wavelength output) to one user, and other interested users had to work as best they could with the conditions set up.

Diamond, with its current complement of 13 different beamlines, is certainly not of this parasitic kind. In addition to extending investigatory tools from X-ray to infrared, the experimental hutch where the beamlines end enables samples to be investigated by spectroscopy, as well as scattering (diffraction).

Development of the facility is divided into three phases. The first phase is complete, and comprises 13 beams. At the end of phase two a further nine beams will have been added, three or four of them this year. And under discussion now is the funding for a further 10 in phase three of the project.

The facility is a collaboration between government (86 percent) and The Wellcome Trust (14 per cent). The joint venture was established on 2nd April, 2002. Thirty companies competed for the contract, and the building was erected between 2003 and January 2005. It went into operation in March 2006, and was opened by the Queen, captured in a photograph published in the Annual Report, smiling, as she met the line of men from Diamond assembled to meet her. The first researchers, writes Materlik, in the Company's annual report, arrived in January 2007.

Diamond is mainly for academics, but industrial users, such as British Aerospace, are bidding for time on the beamlines. The policy is that overall the facility is 90 percent for academia and 10 percent for industry. No single beamline can allocate more than 30 percent of its time to industry. Changing that policy would require a board decision, says Materlik.

Competition for time on the beamlines is intense, and part of Diamond's outreach locally is to pose tough questions to local teenagers, to give them a sense of what the facility does and why.

Participating students are not expected to discuss the science, but are expected to talk of issues such as how many people might the research benefit. "...they may decide that proposals that benefit more people a small amount are better than proposals that benefit a small number of people a great deal," says the material with the case studies. Three of the proposals handed out are: the case for finding the structure of bird flu (H5N1) to design a vaccine to protect people from a new flu pandemic; looking at the structure of potential new anti-retroviral treatments for HIV/AIDS; and improve the foot and mouth vaccine.

I didn't think to challenge at the time, and accepted uncritically, which on reflection I think was wrong of me, the idea that students wouldn't be asked to discuss the science of the project. The way one understands a quadratic equation, or pythagoras's theorem, changes through one's life, in the same way that one might read Emma differently, as one understands oneself and social interactions more deeply. So perhaps Diamond's leading bright scientific lights might benefit from an encounter with a curious 14-year old, or autodidact from another discipline


GavaghanCommunications Helen Gavaghan©.