NSF News

New NSF-funded infrastructure will transform ability to study elemental processes in living systems

Today, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a nearly $20 million award that will support the construction of novel infrastructure to enable new levels of understanding of living systems that can aid in feeding the world sustainably, accelerate carbon sequestration, and sustainably extract rare earth elements and metals critical to electronics and other products.

The new X-rays for Life Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Agriculture and Plant Sciences (XLEAP) facility will be located at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) facility at Cornell University but will serve researchers nationwide. XLEAP is funded as part of NSF's Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure 1 (Mid-scale RI-1) program.

The XLEAP facility will feature cutting-edge instrumentation that will allow scientists to study an organism’s elemental details in ways not possible today, including measuring trace amounts of rare earth elements and elements with high atomic numbers that are often obscured at lower energies.

Researchers using the new facility will be able to use X-ray fluorescence, a technique in which researchers analyze the chemical makeup of a sample by measuring the fluorescent X-rays emitted when the sample is excited by a primary X-ray source. The facility will also have a unique on-site growth chamber to safely use the technology on living samples, such as a full live plant. Traditional methods often require sample preparation such as cut stem or leaf, due to the strength of the beams. The unique use of live samples will allow researchers to study the changes in organisms in novel ways.

"XLEAP is a huge step forward in our ability to understand how genes function under different conditions — be they evolutionary, developmental, physiological or otherwise — and to apply that knowledge to creating more climate-resistant crops, increasing the amount of carbon an organism can store, or any number of other critical societal needs," said Susan Marqusee, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences. "Up until now we've been limited in seeing the full picture, somewhat like being forced to infer the plot of a movie from a single, damaged still image. With this new instrumentation, we will be able to see scenes and zoom in and out to catch important details."

In addition to enabling new scientific inquiry, XLEAP will also enable new groups to participate through a partnership between Cornell and the University of Texas at El Paso, a Hispanic-serving institution. The collaboration will engage graduate students in the development and testing of new hardware and experimental methods for use at the beamline, enhancing the diversity of both the synchrotron-use community and the biological sciences workforce. Training of a diverse workforce engaged in the design and implementation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics research infrastructure is a key component of the Mid-scale RI-1 program.

The Mid-scale RI-1 program provides an agile, agencywide process to fund experimental research capabilities in the mid-scale range between Major Research Instrumentation programs and Major Multi-user Facilities. This level of funding — between $4 million and up to but not including $20 million for Mid-scale RI-1 and between $20 million and $100 million for the Mid-scale Research Infrastructure 2 program — can support any combination of facilities, equipment, instrumentation, or computational hardware or software, and the necessary human capital in support of the same.

Learn more about the Mid-scale RI-1 program and view the XLEAP project abstract on www.nsf.gov.