Manufacturing Bits: Nov. 15

Tiny magnifying glass; chemical flipping.


Tiny magnifying glass
The University of Cambridge has devised what researchers claim is the world’s smallest magnifying glass.

More specifically, researchers developed a tiny optical cavity, dubbed a pico-cavity. The pico-cavity consists of self-assembled, biphenyl-4-thiol molecules. These materials are sandwiched between gold nanostructures the size of a single atom.

With the pico-cavity, researchers are able to confine light to less than a billionth of a meter.

Researchers used gold nanoparticles to make the world’s tiniest optical cavity. Source: University of Cambridge

Researchers used gold nanoparticles to make the world’s tiniest optical cavity. Source: University of Cambridge

Using the properties of tiny gold particles, researchers can confine light down to smaller than a single atom. This, in turn, enables them to look at individual chemical bonds inside molecules. It also opens up new ways to study light and matter.

Building tiny gold structures with atomic control is challenging, however. Researchers cooled the structures to -260°C. This, in turn, froze what researchers called scurrying gold atoms.

“Even single gold atoms behave just like tiny metallic ball bearings in our experiments, with conducting electrons roaming around, which is very different from their quantum life where electrons are bound to their nucleus,” said Jeremy Baumberg, a professor of the NanoPhotonics Center at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

Chemical flipping
The Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has taken an image of a chemical flipping a biological switch.

Using a powerful X-ray laser, SLAC took snapshots of a chemical interaction between two biomolecules. More specifically, the interaction involves the flipping of an RNA switch.

RNA, a key part of the genetic material in cells, comes in different forms. They work together to guide and regulate the production of proteins.

The results open the door for studying RNA and other biomolecules. It also could help treat and prevent disease.
The experiments were carried out at SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), a hard X-ray free-electron laser. The laser enables ultrabright and ultrashort pulses. It captures atomic-scale snapshots in quadrillionths of a second.

With the laser, researchers took snapshots of the chemical interaction. They obtained the first images of a so-called riboswitch in its initial, empty-pocket state. Researchers discovered that a riboswitch exists in two configurations. Only one of those participates in switching.

They were also surprised to discover that the sudden change in the shape of the riboswitches. “This opens up a lot of new possibilities and gives us a new way to look at how RNA and proteins interact with small molecules,” said Soichi Wakatsuki, a professor at SLAC and at the Stanford School of Medicine and head of the lab’s Biosciences Division.

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