Scientists explore how slow release fertilizer behaves in soil

Testing soil samples at the Canadian Light Source has helped a University of Saskatchewan soil scientist understand how tripolyphosphate (TPP), a slow release form of phosphorus fertilizer, works in the soil as a plant nutrient for much longer periods than previously thought.

Jordan Hamilton says the research also has implications for ongoing efforts by U of S soil scientists to use phosphorous-rich materials to clean up contaminated petroleum sites.

Hamilton, now a post-doctoral fellow working within U of S professor Derek Peak’s Environmental Soil Chemistry group, had a chapter of his PhD thesis, “Chemical speciation and fate of tripolyphosphate after application to a calcareous soil,” published earlier this year in the online journal Geochemical Transactions.

TPP needs to break down into a simpler form of phosphate in order to be used as a nutrient by plants. In most types of soil, the belief was that TPP would break down right away, says Hamilton.

“I would definitely say the biggest surprise is how quickly the TPP adsorbed (attached itself) to mineral sources, especially in these calcium-rich soils,” he said. “For the longer term, it was surprising to see it persist.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

Tungsten accumulation in bone raises health concerns

McGill University scientists have identified exposure to tungsten as problematic after they determined how and where high levels of the metal accumulate and remain in bone.

“Our research provides further evidence against the long-standing perception that tungsten is inert and non-toxic,” said Cassidy VanderSchee, a PhD student and a member of a McGill research group headed by chemistry professor Scott Bohle.

Tungsten is a hard metal with a high melting point and, when combined with other metals and used as an alloy, it’s also very flexible.

Because of these properties and under the assumption that tungsten is non-toxic, it has been tested for use in medical implants, including arterial stents and hip replacements, in radiation shields to protect tissue during radiation therapy, and in some drugs. Tungsten is found in ammunition as well as in tools used for machining and cutting other metals.

Tungsten also occurs naturally in groundwater where deposits of the mineral are found. Exposure to high levels of tungsten in drinking water in Fallon, Nevada, was investigated for a possible link with childhood leukemia in the early 2000s. This investigation lead scientists to question the long-held belief that exposure to tungsten is safe and prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. to nominate tungsten for toxicology and carcinogenesis studies.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Cassidy VenderSchee

Gold protein clusters could be used as environmental and health detectors

Peng Zhang and his collaborators study remarkable, tiny self-assembling clusters of gold and protein that glow a bold red. And they’re useful: protein-gold nanoclusters could be used to detect harmful metals in water or to identify cancer cells in the body.
“These structures are very exciting but are very, very hard to study. We tried many different tools, but none worked,” says Zhang, a Dalhousie University professor.

Peng Zhang and his collaborators study remarkable, tiny self-assembling clusters of gold and protein that glow a bold red. And they’re useful: protein-gold nanoclusters could be used to detect harmful metals in water or to identify cancer cells in the body.

“These structures are very exciting but are very, very hard to study. We tried many different tools, but none worked,” says Zhang, a Dalhousie University professor.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: The protein-gold structure. The protein, which both builds and holds in place the gold cluster, is shown in grey.

Climate change and its effects on Rocky Mountain alpine lakes

Alpine lakes in the Rocky Mountains are important biological hot spots of that ecosystem. These lakes do not have enough nutrients to support large amounts of aquatic life because of the cold climate in the surrounding watershed. Rather, the lakes are home to oligotrophs, organisms that grow slowly and can survive in harsh aquatic environments. The lakes also host a variety of cold-water fish, such as trout, that are preyed upon by birds, including osprey and bald eagles.

Researchers from University of Wyoming, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Canadian Light Source conducted experiments at the CLS on the fine dust that is deposited to the Rocky Mountains to learn more about how the alpine lakes could be affected by climate change. They looked specifically at phosphorus in dust and how it is made available to the organisms in the cold lakes and streams, because phosphorus is one of the major limiting nutrients, and its availability could affect the functions and properties of alpine lake ecosystems.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

Scientists map important immune system enzyme for the first time

Biochemists from McGill University are getting a good look at just how a specific enzyme that is part of the human immune system interacts with a certain group of bacteria that are described as gram-negative.

Researchers around the world “have been studying the enzyme, known as AOAH, for more than 30 years. This is the first time anyone has been able to see exactly what it looks like,” according to Bhushan Nagar, an associate professor of biochemistry at McGill University in Montreal.

More than that, the 3D images captured a moment in time which shows just how AOAH inactivates a toxic molecule that is commonly part of various gram-negative bacteria. The research was conducted at the Canadian Light Source.

Numerous types of gram-negative bacteria exist throughout the environment. While some are harmless, many cause a variety of human illnesses, says Nagar. For example, several species such as E. coli and Salmonella, cause food borne illness. Others cause infections such as pneumonia, meningitis, bloodstream infections or gonorrhea.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source

Image: Bhushan Nagar (principal investigator), Alexei Gorelik (first author of paper) and Katalin Illes (research assistant at Nagar lab) at their McGill University lab.
Credit: Bhushan Nagar.

Scientists work toward new canola varieties

Scientists are in a race against a disease that threatens canola, one of Western Canada’s most important crops, and they are looking to the Canadian Light Source to learn more about the genetic resistance to this disease.

Clubroot causes swelling on the canola roots eventually killing the plant. Finding a way for those roots to resist this soil-borne disease is the cornerstone of the strategy for managing the disease, says Gary Peng, a scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Saskatoon Research and Development Centre.

“The consequences of clubroot in a canola field can be devastating. It can wipe out the whole crop,” said Peng.

The first case of clubroot in canola was reported in 2003 in several fields in the Edmonton area. The infestation spread rapidly to fields north of the city and the disease is now found in more than 2,000 fields in a wide band across Alberta. In Saskatchewan, it was first detected in 2008, but significant evidence of the disease attacking the roots of canola plants wasn’t identified until 2011, according to the Canola Council of Canada.

>Read more on the Canadian Lightsource website

Study reveals mechanism in spruce tree that causes growth

While it’s common knowledge that trees grow when days start to become longer in the springtime and stop growing when days become shorter in the fall, exactly how this happens has not been well understood.

Now, scientists using the Canadian Light Source are offering insights into the mechanisms of how certain cells in the winter buds of Norway spruce respond to changes in seasonal light, affecting growth. The research was published in Frontiers in Plant Science.

Such knowledge allows for better predictions of how trees might respond to climate change, which could bring freezing temperatures while daylight is still long or warmer temperatures when daylight is short.

Professor Jorunn E. Olsen and YeonKyeong Lee, plant scientists at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, along with colleagues from the University of Saskatchewan investigated winter bud cells from Norway spruce and how they differ with respect to the amount of daylight to which they were exposed.

>Read more on the Candian Light Source website

Image (from left to right, extract): plant with terminal winter bud after short day exposure for three weeks; plant with brown bud scales after short day exposure for eight weeks; plant showing bud break and new growth three weeks after re-transfer to long days following eight weeks under short days. Entire picture here.

A first look at how miniscule bubbles affect the texture of noodles

The texture of a noodle is a remarkably complicated thing. When you bite into a spoonful of ramen noodles, you expect a bit of springiness (or a resistance to your bite) on the outside and a pleasantly soft give on the interior. These variations are so tiny as to be often overlooked, but they matter to noodle quality.

There are many factors in play in making a good noodle. For a wheat noodle, the structure of the gluten affects the overall quality. How a noodle dough is stretched, folded, and rolled out matters. And in between all of this, there are miniscule air bubbles that are part of the mix and influence texture.

Until recently, no one had ever looked at the bubbles in noodle dough.

“There was absolutely nothing in the literature indicating that the bubbles were there or that they were important at all. We did have some indirect evidence for bubbles from our ultrasonic experiments, but CLS (Canadian Light Source) microtomography was in some ways a hail Mary experiment: OK, let’s just sheet some dough and see what we find,” said Martin Scanlon, U of M professor in the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences, and the project’s lead researcher.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

The future of energy storage with novel metal-oxide magnesium battery

Move over, lithium-ion; now, there’s a better battery on the horizon.

A multi-institution team of scientists led by Texas A&M University chemist Sarbajit Banerjee has discovered an exceptional metal-oxide magnesium battery cathode material, moving researchers one step closer to delivering batteries that promise higher density of energy storage on top of transformative advances in safety, cost and performance in comparison to their ubiquitous lithium-ion (Li-ion) counterparts.

“The worldwide push to advance renewable energy is limited by the availability of energy storage vectors,” says Banerjee in the team’s paper, published Feb. 1 in the journal Chem, a new chemistry-focused journal by Cell Press. “Currently, lithium-ion technology dominates; however, the safety and long-term supply of lithium remain serious concerns. By contrast, magnesium is much more abundant than lithium, has a higher melting point, forms smooth surfaces when recharging, and has the potential to deliver more than a five-fold increase in energy density if an appropriate cathode can be identified.”

Ironically, the team’s futuristic solution hinges on a redesigned form of an old Li-ion cathode material, vanadium pentoxide, which they proved is capable of reversibly inserting magnesium ions.

“We’ve essentially reconfigured the atoms to provide a different pathway for magnesium ions to travel along, thereby obtaining a viable cathode material in which they can readily be inserted and extracted during discharging and charging of the battery,” Banerjee says.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

Scientists develop process to produce higher quality fuel from biowaste

Researchers have found a way to produce a higher quality, more stable fuel from biowaste, such as sewage, that is simpler and cleaner than existing methods.

“This puts biofuel closer to being a good substitute for fossil fuels,” said Hua Song (picture), an associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary. Song and his research team recently published the results of their research conducted at the Canadian Light Source in the journal Fuel.
“The world energy market is currently dominated by fossil fuels. With increasing concern surrounding climate change and dwindling resources that are associated with the use of fossil fuels, renewable energy sources are becoming increasingly desirable and are currently the fast growing energy source,” wrote Song in the research paper.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

From greenhouse gases to plastics

New catalyst for recycling carbon dioxide discovered

Imagine if we could take CO2, that most notorious of greenhouse gases, and convert it into something useful. Something like plastic, for example. The positive effects could be dramatic, both diverting CO2 from the atmosphere and reducing the need for fossil fuels to make products.

A group of researchers, led by the University of Toronto Ted Sargent group, just published results that bring this possibility a lot closer.

Using the Canadian Light Source and a new technique exclusive to the facility, they were able to pinpoint the conditions that convert CO2 to ethylene most efficiently. Ethylene, in turn, is used to make polyethylene—the most common plastic used today—whose annual global production is around 80 million tonnes.

 

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

Scientists discover why biochar fertilizers work so well

It’s a process that is as old as humankind taming fire and growing crops. The practice of returning carbon to the soil through charcoal (called “biochar” when put into the ground) from fires has been known for centuries to have a positive effect on plant growth.

Now, thanks to some work done at the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon, advocates of using biochar know the reason why charcoal works so well in capturing and releasing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus slowly into the soil to improve crop yields over an entire growing season and beyond. The findings could lead to the creation of an organic slow release fertilizer with significantly better performance than current agricultural management practices.

The answer researchers from Europe got in a trip to the CLS beamlines was not the one that everyone had previously presumed.  Instead of the old assumption that oxidization of biochar enabled the storage and release of nutrients for crops, team leader Nikolas Hagemann says the CLS allowed researchers to see the actual pathway.  Martin Obst, one of Hagemann’s collaborators and frequent user of the CLS, used the soft X-ray spectromicroscopy beamline to get a picture at the molecular level so they could see how other nutrients such as composted manure clung to the biochar due to size and shape of the carbon molecules. Incorporated into soil, the biochar is slow to give up the nutrients clinging to it.

 

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Bright light allows researchers to see bone as well as tissue

Getting good images of the middle ear and all its parts is tricky. But it’s needed for scientists who want to do things like repair damage or make devices to help aging middle ears function better.

According to the Canadian Health Measures Survey, about 20 per cent of adults aged 19 to 79 years have at least mild hearing loss in at one or both ears, while close to 47 per cent of adults aged 60 to 79 years have some level of hearing loss. Damage to the middle ear is a common contributor to hearing loss.

There are several challenges to getting good images of the middle ear, especially 3D images, according to Hanif Ladak, a professor of biomedical engineering at Western University.

 

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

‘Quantum material’ has shark-like ability to detect small electrical signals

A “quantum material” that mimics a shark’s ability to detect the minute electric fields of small prey has been shown to perform well in ocean-like conditions, with potential applications from defence to marine biology.

The material maintains its functional stability and does not corrode after being immersed in saltwater, a prerequisite for ocean sensing. Surprisingly, it also functions well in the cold, ambient temperatures typical of seawater, said Shriram Ramanathan, a professor of materials engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Such a technology might be used to study ocean organisms and ecosystems and to monitor the movement of ships for military and commercial maritime applications.

 

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

U of S scientist describes fundamental process when ice is compressed

Water.

Almost three-quarters of the earth’s surface is covered by it. Almost two-thirds of the human body is made up of it. We drink it. We use it in our homes and in industry. As a solid, it’s ice. As a gas, it’s steam.

“Nobody understands water, the structure of water. Water has a lot of anomalies,” says John Tse, University of Saskatchewan physics professor and Canada Research Chair in Materials Science.

Tse has committed decades to learning more about what so many of us take for granted. In the process, he has refuted a long-standing fundamental hypothesis about water. The results were published this fall in Physical Review Letters.

 

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

U of S researchers discover vampire bugs’ fatal flaw

University of Saskatchewan researchers have found a unique blood-cooling system in the head of “kissing bugs” that transmit life-threatening Chagas disease—a finding that may help develop next-generation pest control tools to thwart these blood-sucking critters.

“These insects are developing resistance to insecticides, so we need to better understand their biology to find new ways for killing them and limit the spread of Chagas disease,” said U of S physiology professor Juan Ianowski.

Untreatable and often undetected, Chagas disease affects six to seven million people, mostly in Latin America where it spreads mainly through Rhodnius prolixus, known as the “kissing bug” for its habit of biting around its victim’s mouth.

 

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website