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Neutrons & Natural World

Neutron scattering at ISIS and ILL is being used to develop our understanding of the Earth’s geology and natural environment. You can find out more about ISIS’s natural world research here.


Sub-zero survival

Food storage, fertility treatment and transporting medicines could benefit from a new understanding of how lizards survive at low temperatures.

Cold-blooded lizards have only limited ability to regulate their own body temperature. When temperatures fall in winter, so does their body temperature, putting tissues and cells at risk of irreparable damage from internal ice. 

To prevent lethal ice crystals forming in and between cells in their body, lizards use chemical compounds such as glycerol to reduce the freezing temperature of water.  During prolonged exposure to sub-zero temperatures, cell activity is paused until temperatures rise again and normal activity can safely resume.

Molecular structure data collected with neutron scattering shows how mixing glycerol with water prevents rigid ice networks from forming.  This new fundamental understanding of the role of glycerol will be helpful in a range of applications. 

 “Improving our fundamental knowledge of lizard cryopreservation may lead to improved storage and recovery of tissue for fertility treatment, better storage of drugs in the pharmaceutical industry and transport of organs for surgery, and better storage of food in the agricultural industry.”
Dr Lorna Dougan, University of Leeds

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Spinning yarns

Neutron scattering is playing a key role in discovering how silk can be made artificially.

Spider-silk is five times as strong as steel and absorbs three times more energy than the material used in bullet-proof vests. The strength and elasticity of silk could be harnessed for new plastics and biomedical implants if it could be made artificially. 

Spiders spin silk from a mix of water and proteins stored as a gel in specialised silk glands inside their bodies. As the gel is pulled through their spinning glands it becomes a very resilient solid that could have many potential uses in the industrial world.  

Research teams are using neutron beams tuned for studying biological materials to shine a light on the atomic scale structural changes as the gel transforms into solid fibre. Experiments have unlocked some answers, but more of nature’s secrets remain. 

“We are asking how nature makes such amazing materials. Neutron scattering is an excellent technique for understanding the spider’s magic tricks”
Dr Chris Holland, Oxford University Silk Group

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Disease resistant crops

Anti-microbial plant defence proteins could be used in transgenic crop species to increase disease resistance and food yield 

Food security is becoming a major concern in the UK and across the world, as harvest yields are challenged by climate change, pests, diseases and the demands of a rising world population. 

A quarter of the world’s crops are lost to pests and disease. Understanding how plants defend themselves could be one way to reduce losses. 

Common crops like rye, barley, oats, and wheat make antimicrobial proteins to defend themselves against disease, fungi and bacteria. In wheat, the defence proteins play an additional role in giving the endosperm texture, an economically important quality that determines the milling characteristics of the wheat.

Food scientists are using neutron scattering to learn about the molecular action of defence proteins and their interaction with the cell membranes of invaders. They can watch defence proteins punch their way through a cell membrane to kill hostile bacteria or strip vital components from its surface.

As regional climates change, this knowledge will help farmers and breeders to adapt plants to counteract shifting weather patterns.


Planetary science

Geologists have developed novel high-pressure neutron scattering experiments to model the Earth’s interior or predict the geology of the icy moons of the Solar System.

Satellite missions to the giant gas planets Jupiter and Saturn have revealed that our Solar System displays a rich variety of bodies, each with a complex and diverse evolutionary history.

Understanding the evolution of the planets and moons presents one of the major challenges in Earth and planetary sciences

Unique equipment developed by university groups in the UK and France for neutron scattering instruments can squeeze rocks and other materials to very high pressures.

These high pressures reproduce the conditions found inside Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, or inside the mantle of the Earth at depths of up to 700 km.

The precise data derived from neutron scattering experiments allows planetary scientists to better interpret the geology seen in surface images taken from spacecraft, or create robust interpretations of seismic data recorded on Earth.

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Last updated: 14 August 2017


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