Chergui's CHIRAX project at Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste is one of the ERC-AdG grants just assigned in Italy

Immagine ‘chirale' delle molecole su scala atomica

Prof. Majed Chergui, Professor Emeritus of the Polytechnic University of Lausanne (EPFL), has been selected (for the second time) among the winners of the European Commission's most prestigious grant for basic research, the European Research Council Advanced Grant (ERC-AdG). His project, called CHIRAX, deals with X-ray Spectroscopy of chiral molecules in liquid and is based at the Elettra-Sincrotrone Trieste International Research Center.

Prof. Chergui is a world expert in X-ray-based techniques, and in particular he has demonstrated the technical validity of the proposed approach on powder samples. The CHIRAX project will apply it to liquid samples, the management of which presents more technical challenges, but of enormous interest, as they represent the natural environment in which the biological processes that the project wants to understand take place.

CHIRAX, financed with nearly 2,5 Millions Eur will be based primarily at FERMI, the free-electron laser at the Elettra-Sincrotrone Trieste International Center, will run for five years starting in the fall of 2023 and will involve the collaboration with the University of Trieste and with various synchrotrons and FELs in Europe: the PhD students involved will have the opportunity to use the most technologically advanced instrumentation available today and apply it to an extremely innovative field of basic research.
The ERC-AdG grant won by Prof. Majed Chergui, (EPFL), is one of 14 grants won at Italian institutions (6.5 percent out of a total of 218 approved grants; the ranking is led by Germany, with 37 grants).
The total number of ERC-AdG grantees of Italian nationality is higher, amounting to 22 out of 218 (10 percent of the total). It follows that Prof. Majed Chergui's contribution goes against the trend: a researcher working in Switzerland who decides to bring his future research to Italy, specifically to Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste. Possible reasons behind this successful example are surely to be found in the uniqueness of the two light machines operating at Elettra-the Elettra synchrotron and the Free Electron Laser (FEL) FERMI-and in the level of internationality of the center.
In fact, Prof. Majed Chergui has long been a user of FERMI, a machine that has distinguished itself among its peers (only 9 FELs are operational in the world) for its innovative design and the stability of its coherent, ultra-short (10-100 femtosecond, millionth of a billionth of a second) pulses ten billion times brighter than those emitted by third-generation sources, the result of conscious technical choices that defied current limitations. FERMI is a machine operating in the energy range of extreme ultraviolet and soft X-rays, which opens up new opportunities to explore the structure of transient states of condensed matter, soft and biological matter, and rarefied matter (atoms, molecules, and their aggregates in vacuum), offering a variety of techniques ranging from diffraction, scattering, and light, electron, and ion spectroscopy.

CHIRAX: X-ray spectroscopy of molecular chirality in solutions

Chirality (from the Greek χείρ: hand) is a central property of certain molecules that exist in two forms and are a mirror-image of each other but that are not superimposable, like our hands. These two forms are called right and left enantiomers. Nature, on the other hand, is monochiral, i.e. biological functions occur with only one type of enantiomer, while the other can be neutral or even, toxic. For example, the Dopa molecule has an enantiomer that is used to treat Parkinson's disease, while the other causes headaches, nausea and dizziness. Consequently, the identification and separation of enantiomers is of central importance in pharmacology, toxicology, medicine, biochemistry but also in other fields, such as heterogeneous catalysis that occurs at surfaces.
Today the market for chiral chemicals represents approximately $60 Billion and is expected to grow to $150 Billion by 2030! The methodology, called circular dichroism, to identify enantiomers is the same one that was developed more than a century ago by Pasteur, van't Hoff and Le Bel. It uses certain properties of enantiomers to preferably absorb visible or ultraviolet light having a circular polarization. Unfortunately, this technique is not very sensitive.
The CHIRAX project proposes to extend circular dichroism to X-rays. X-rays offer a significantly higher sensitivity, and also allow to select the chemical element (i.e. the atom) that absorbs the light and to link it to the chiral state of the molecule. The aim of the project is to bring this technique, which is intrinsically very sensitive, to a level of implementation that allows it to be used for the analysis of molecules. Furthermore, by exploiting the ultrafast temporal structure of the X-ray beam available with the FERMI Free Electron Laser, the project aims to perform this type of analysis in real-time, and follow the evolution of chiral biomolecular systems over time and with changing analytical conditions.
Last Updated on Thursday, 30 March 2023 16:30