New Brazilian particle accelerator will allow tomographic analysis of human cells

Third-generation synchrotrons have led to a revolution in imaging and tomography thanks to high beam coherence, says the head of Brazil's LNLS lab (photo: Leandro Negro / Agência FAPESP)

The event, hosted by FAPESP and Uppsala and Lund Universities, was designed to further scientific collaboration between Sweden and São Paulo State by promoting an exchange of research, technology and experience. Both universities have cooperation agreements with FAPESP (read more at and

“Our academic communities already have important collaborations, but their potential can be developed further, especially in view of the research possibilities offered by the new synchrotron radiation sources under development in Brazil and Sweden,” said Leif Kirsebom, a professor at Uppsala University.

These possibilities include mammalian cell tomography, as already mentioned. Brazil’s existing synchrotron light source, the only one in Latin America, can be used for the three-dimensional X-ray tomography of millimeter-scale samples of organic and inorganic materials with micrometer-scale resolution. The beamline dedicated to this technique is capable of analyzing the internal microstructures of soft materials that have low densities or are based on light chemical elements, as well as the surfaces of dense, resistant, or heavy materials.

“Third-generation synchrotrons, the most advanced in service today, have underpinned a revolution in imaging and tomography thanks to their high beam coherence, which produces more precise images,” said LNLS Director Antonio José Roque da Silva. “Individual cells can be imaged, for example, and even subcellular structures can be identified. However, because of the size constraints on 3G beams, they can’t be used to analyze larger cells, such as those of humans and other mammals.”

Sirius and Max IV will be the first synchrotron light sources with this capability, which will be important for the treatment of diseases, as well as for several other activities related to health and biology. “These labs will be used to do pioneering work that will advance our understanding of cell biology,” Roque da Silva said.

Gunnar Öhrwall from the Max IV Laboratory (MaxLab) highlighted the potential for collaboration between researchers using the new Brazilian and Swedish accelerators.

“Sirius will be one of the world’s two leading facilities, alongside Max,” he said. “Technologically speaking, there won’t be major differences between them in terms of capacity, but we’ll be able to learn a lot together, especially in the scientific fields each country has mastered. This kind of competition is healthy. It’s an extremely interesting window of opportunity because Sirius will enable Brazil to take the lead in areas where it already performs strongly, such as biology, agriculture, materials science and chemistry.”

For Roque da Silva, one of the features that could give Sirius a competitive edge is the interaction between the team that runs the particle accelerator and the scientific division of LNLS.

“Our synchrotron is part of the National Energy & Materials Research Center (CNPEM), which includes biology, nanotechnology and nanoscience labs, as well as a lab specializing in bioethanol and renewable energy sources,” he said. “This research environment creates a highly productive virtuous circle in the areas concerned. The machine is being optimized to enable better research to be performed using the beamlines. That’s the paramount aim, after all. A synchrotron light source isn’t a particle collider but rather a technology designed to generate the highest possible radiation for science. We want to be competitive in an energy range that is important for biology, medicine, agriculture, and other areas of strategic importance to Brazil, and we’re aiming to achieve a leap in the quality of the technology available here.”

One of the beamlines that Sirius will make available to researchers from Brazil and elsewhere is Ipê, which stands for “inelastic photoelectron spectroscopy” but also refers to seven different tree species in the genus Tabebuia found in the tropical forests of Central and South America. Other lines under development are named after other tree species that are common in the area where Sirius is being built, including Cateretê (Machaerium paraguariense) and Imbuia (Ocotea porosa).

Tulio Costa Rizuti da Rocha, also a researcher at LNLS, delivered a presentation on the research possibilities that will be available using this line. “One of Ipê’s objectives is to perform soft X-ray spectroscopy at low energies but not in a vacuum as it’s done traditionally,” he said. “This means that the technique can be used under ambient conditions and opens up a number of possible applications, including studies of soils and biological samples, as well as studies related to catalysts and other areas that involve the characterization of non-vacuum-compatible surface interfaces.”

The spectrometer available for this kind of work at Sirius will be fitted with a special lens. Only two companies in the world supply such devices.

João Batista Borges, a researcher at Uppsala University, expects Sirius and Max IV to enhance the results of his work on acute respiratory distress syndrome.

“Fourth-generation synchrotron light sources will undoubtedly help us to elucidate key aspects of this physiopathology, which is associated with extremely high mortality rates, in the range of 40%,” he said. “Because the goal is not to develop new drugs but to regulate the machine that ventilates the patient’s lungs, I need to understand the problem deep in the interior of the lungs, with the aid of high-precision images that only Sirius and Max IV will be able to provide.”

Borges works at Uppsala University performing research using positron emission tomography (PET) to map the lungs to see if they are inflamed, pinpoint the initial site of inflammation, and try to guess the mechanism that triggered the process as a basis for testing protective mechanical ventilation strategies. “4G synchrotron radiation will enable us to perform PET scans with nanometer-scale spatial resolution, which can’t be done with conventional tomography,” he said.

Max IV is now being commissioned and should be open to users next year. Sirius is expected to begin operating in 2018.

Other researchers attending the Brazil-Sweden Workshop on Frontier Science & Education delivered presentations on climate science, energy, the environment, physics, life sciences, and related areas. In addition to Lund and Uppsala Universities and LNLS, the speakers were affiliated with the Universities of São Paulo (USP) and Campinas (UNICAMP), the Federal University of the ABC (UFABC), São Paulo State University (UNESP), and the European Spallation Source (ESS).

For more information about the workshop, visit