Battling bad bugs

Scientists fight antibiotic resistance by using synchrotron to study scab disease in potatoes.

In the ongoing war against antibiotic resistant bacteria, a change in battle tactics may prove effective for controlling a common disease of plants and potentially other toxins that affect humans and animals.

Although bacterial toxins cause serious, often deadly diseases, “bacteria aren’t trying to be nasty,” said Dr. Rod Merrill, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Guelph. “They’re hungry and looking for food, and we’re often the food.” He added that 99 per cent of bacteria are helpful – like gut flora – so the battle is against the remaining one per cent.

The usual approach is to develop antibiotics “that kill the bacteria but not us, or the plant, or the animal,” stated Merrill. However, bacteria mutate quickly, as quickly as every 30 minutes, which leads to antibiotic resistance. “And unfortunately, the pipeline for new antibiotics is empty.”

The approach that Merrill and his research group are pursuing is an anti-virulence strategy – finding or designing small molecules that inhibit the tools bacteria use to colonize the host and create infection. “If we can put a lock on their weapons, they can’t get food and will move on so there’s not the same pressure to mutate. We’re going with this approach because we think it’s time to change up tactics.”

Read more on the CLS website

Image: Scabin crystals

Credit: CLS

Surviving the deep freeze

Key proteins protect wildlife when the temperature drops

It is hard to imagine what some fish, carrots and tiny snow fleas might have in common, but it turns out it is something key to their survival when the temperature drops below freezing.

The common trait, also shared by insects, bacteria and other microorganisms, is antifreeze proteins (AFP). As the name suggests, AFPs work “to prevent organisms from freezing or to help them survive in a frozen state,” explained Dr. Peter Davies, a professor at Queen’s University and Canada Research Chair in Protein Engineering.

Davies has been studying these unique proteins for about 40 years. His latest research, aided by X-ray diffraction techniques at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan was recently published in The FEBS Journal. This study continues to build knowledge about AFP structures, their function and evolution.

Read more on the CLS website

Image: A snow flea (Granisotoma rainieri) that was collected in Japan by coauthor Dr Sakae Tsuda

Credit: Canadian Light Source (CLS)

Dublin researchers study phosphorus cycling and water quality

Using the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan, Trinity College Dublin researchers have studied long term phosphorus storage and release in environmental systems, information which can help guide water quality management.

Phosphorus applied to agricultural crops is stored in various mineral and organic forms. This accumulated phosphorus is termed “legacy phosphorus” and can take decades to eventually mineralize and leach back into aquatic systems in a form living things can use.

“Phosphorus in lake and river systems is being recycled back into the water column degrading water quality through weed and algal growth cycles which can initially be exacerbated if phosphate inputs are stopped or significantly reduced” said Dr. David O’Connell, Assistant Professor of Contaminant Hydrology and Hydrogeology at Trinity College Dublin.

He recently published two papers with international collaborators that explore legacy phosphorus in river and lake systems, elucidating the processes and mechanisms through which phosphorus is stored and released in these systems over the long term.

Read more on the CLS website

Image: Flow measurements at the Bunuoke catchment.

Credit: Dr. David O’Connell

Realizing the limitless possibilities of wearable electronics

Benoît Lessard and his team are developing carbon-based technologies which could lead to improved flexible phone displays, make robotic skin more sensitive and allow for wearable electronics that could monitor the physical health of athletes in real-time.

With the help of the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), a team of Canadian and international scientists have evaluated how thin film structure correlates to organic thin-film transistors performance.

Organic electronics use carbon-based molecules to create more flexible and efficient devices. The display of our smart phones is based on organic-LED technology, which uses organic molecules to emit bright light and others to respond to touch.

Lessard, the corresponding author of a recent paper published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, is excited about the data his team has collected at the HXMA beamline. As Canada Research Chair in Advanced Polymer Materials and Organic Electronics and Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Lessard is working on furthering the technology behind organic thin-film transistors. To improve on this technology the team is engineering the design and processing of phthalocyanines, molecules used traditionally as dyes and pigments.

Read more on the CLS website

Image: Benoît Lessard in the lab

Credit: Benoît Lessard

A better understanding of arterial calcification

McGill researchers are one step closer to understanding the origins of arterial calcification, a process that contributes to heart disease.

Minerals form naturally in our bones and teeth, but when minerals like calcium phosphate attach to the soft tissues of our vascular system, they can turn the once flexible arteries into stiff vessels that restrict blood flow––increasing the chance of heart attacks or strokes.

Understanding how and why minerals form in soft tissue is crucial for the health of at-risk Canadians, those living with diabetes and chronic kidney disease, as well as seniors.

Data collected on the SXRMB beamline at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan has helped further the understanding about where these calcium deposits start.

Read more on the CLS website

Image: Marta Cerruti (left) and Ophelie Gourgas in a laboratory using a Raman machine.

Credit: Canadian Light Source

Preparing for the next generation of batteries

In the ongoing quest to build a better battery, researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to identify the potential of using polymer composites as electrode matrices to increase the capacity of rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries.

“The composition of the adhesive and conductive framework for batteries hasn’t changed in years,” said Dr. Christian Kuss, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Manitoba and one of three researchers on the project. “But, we’re reaching the limit of how much capacity Li-Ion batteries have so this work is essentially preparing for the next generation of batteries.”

Over many cycles of charging and discharging, battery materials begin to break down, he explained. “The goal is to find new matrix materials that allow the electrode to stay intact over longer periods of time and thereby increase capacity.”

The new matrix material Kuss and his colleagues studied was based on a mixture of two polymers – one adhesive and the other conductive. The adhesive polymer is cellulose based, he said, while the conductive one “is easily synthesized and fairly cheap.” Cost is an important consideration “because you ultimately want a battery that is comparable in terms of pricing to what’s already available.”

At the CLS, the researchers used the Spectromicroscopy beamline to study the chemical structure of the polymer mixture. “With this technique, we could see the mixture and see how the polymers were distributed at a microscale.”

Read more on the CLS website

Image: Battery cyclers for running and testing batteries.

Shedding light on the causes of arsenic contamination

An international team has used the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan to uncover the elusive structure of two arsenic-containing compounds, information that can be used to prevent and predict arsenic contamination.

Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, and it is present in ore deposits and the waste left behind by mining for gold, uranium, and other metals. The concern with arsenic-containing compounds, like yukonite and arseniosiderite, is that soil sources can find their way into waterways. Understanding how this happens on a structural level can help scientists — and industry — better understand how the two are formed and better protect the surrounding environment from potential arsenic contamination.

Discovered more than 100 years ago, yukonite and arseniosiderite, which are compounds of arsenic, calcium, iron and oxygen, have concealed their structure from scientists thanks to their low crystallinity. While it’s relatively easy to determine the structure of materials that have a high degree of crystallinity, because of the complexity in the way these minerals’ atoms are arranged, usual methods have come up short in painting a clear picture of their structure.

Using a special technique at the CLS called the pair distribution function (PDF), an international team of researchers from Canada, China, the USA, Italy, and Ireland was able to visualize for the first time how atoms are structured in samples of arseniosiderite, which is classified as semi-crystalline, and yukonite, which is considered a nano-crystalline mineral.

Read more on the CLS website

 Image: Specimen BM.62813 from the collections of the Natural History Museum, London 

Credit: © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Towards better LED lighting

Designing energy efficient, high output, perfectly tinted LEDs

SASKATOON – Scientists have combined experimental data gathered at the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan and theoretical data to build deep insight into two types of light emitting crystals for next-generation LEDs.

“When we have means of creating more efficient lighting, this has a huge environmental impact,” says Alexander Moewes, Canada Research Chair in Materials Science with Synchrotron Radiation at the University of Saskatchewan, who cites that lighting accounts for 15-20% of global electricity consumption, and therefore for roughly 5% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more on the CLS website

Image: Tristan de Boer,  Patrick Braun, Ruhul Amin, Alexander Moewes and Amir Qamar outside the Physics building at USask

Turning straw into gold?

A more profitable and eco-friendly method for turning biomass into biochemicals and green hydrogen

Many have dreamed of being able to turn straw into gold like the fabled Rumpelstiltskin. While this may not be possible in the literal sense, scientists are using sunlight to turn straw into something more valuable.

With the aid of technology from the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan, Canadian researchers have made important advances to use the power of the sun to convert biomass like wheat straw into hydrogen fuel and value-added biochemicals. This method is more efficient, eco-friendly and lucrative.

Producing energy from biomass, or plant material, has been studied for more than four decades, said Dr. Jinguang Hu, assistant professor at the University of Calgary (UCalgary). The two most common processes are thermo-chemical and biological, but these are still carbon intensive and are not economically feasible.

Read more on the CLS website

Image: The UCalgary team is observing a photo-reactor that is being used for a photoreforming reaction with wheat straw. Left to right: Prof. Md Golam Kibria, Dr. Adnan Khan (Research Associate), Dr. Heng Zhao (Post doctoral fellow), Prof. Jinguang Hu.

Credit: Prof. Hu and Kibria group.

Scientists discover potential method to starve the bacteria that cause Tuberculosis

By deepening our understanding of how Tuberculosis bacteria feed themselves, University of Guelph researchers have identified a potential target for drug treatment. The team used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to image the bacteria in fine detail.

The infectious disease Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. While rates of TB in Canada have remained relatively static since the 1980s, the disease disproportionately affects Indigenous populations. With TB-causing bacteria becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, researchers and drug makers are eager to find new, more effective treatments.

Researchers have known for some time that the bacteria that causes TB (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) uses our body’s cholesterol – a steroid – as a food source. Other relatives of the bacteria that do not cause disease share its ability to break down steroids. In this study, the University of Guelph team identified the structure of an enzyme (acyl CoA dehydrogenase) involved in steroid degradation in another member of the same bacteria family, called Thermomonospora curvata.

Read more on the CLS Website

Image: This rendering shows the shape of a tunnel (orange) where the substrate binds. Any drugs targeting this enzyme would need to fit to this pocket.

Canadian Light Source launches The Bison Project

The Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan is launching The Bison Project, a research experience built with a reconciliation action framework for high school, adult basic education and undergraduate students.

The Bison Project integrates Traditional Knowledge and western science in a transformative research experience for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students. The project seeks to reclaim and preserve the central and momentous historical contributions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit women towards saving bison from extinction through a holistic learning approach encompassing knowledge exchange and project-based learning.

This will include mail-in sample analysis of bison hair and grazing soil using CLS beamlines and multi-year projects with student-determined research. Students will participate in land-based sample gathering, research timeline development, and CLS beamline experiments exploring elemental mapping of bison hair and grazing soil.

The Bison Project will generate a collection of cultural expression resources to keep traditional knowledge alive through oral tradition.

Read more on the CLS website

Image: Adult bison and calves at Nachusa Grasslands.

Credit: The Nature Conservancy

Hummus for cows?

Identifying the best chickpea crops for cattle feed

While hummus used to be an exotic spread enjoyed only in the Middle East, it has become a staple in grocery stores throughout the world. Recently, the savory dish has gained popularity amongst a new fan base: herds of cows.

As chickpea production increases around the world, those crops not suitable for human consumption are being recycled into cattle feed as a partial replacement for soybean meal and cereal grains, explained Dr. Peiqiang Yu, a professor with the University of Saskatchewan (USask). “However, until now there was limited information about the nutritional values for this newly developed chickpea as ruminant feed,” he said.

In a recent study, Yu and colleagues showed that the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at USask can effectively image the molecular structure of chickpea seeds to determine which varieties have the highest nutritional value and would best serve as a feed for beef and dairy cattle.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Synchrotron techniques can offer insights into which chickpea crops will perform best before they are produced on a mass scale for cattle.

Credit: Canadian Light Source

Dust travelled thousands of miles to enrich hawaiian soils

With its warm weather and sandy beaches, Hawaii is a magnet for tourists every year. This unique ecosystem also attracts soil scientists interested in what surprises may lie beneath their feet.

In a recent paper published in Geoderma, European researchers outline how they used the rich soils of Hawaii to study the critical movement of phosphorous through the environment. By better understanding the amount and type of phosphorus in the soil, they can help crops become more successful and maintain the health of our ecosystems for years to come.

The project was led by Agroscope scientist Dr. Julian Helfenstein, Prof. Emmanuel Frossard with the Institute of Agricultural Sciences, ETH Zurich; and Dr. Christian Vogel, a researcher at the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing in Berlin.

The team used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to help analyze the different types of phosphorus in their samples and track their origins.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Dr. Christian Vogel using the VLS-PGM beamline to analyze a sample at the CLS.

Get out your vacuum: Scientists find harmful chemicals in household dust

Since the 1970s, chemicals called brominated flame retardants (BFRs) have been added to a host of consumer and household products, ranging from electronics and mattresses to upholstery and carpets. While they were intended to improve fire safety, one form — polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs — has proved harmful to human health, specifically our hormonal systems.

Although the use of PBDEs has been restricted in Canada since 2008, older household electronics and furniture with these compounds are still in use. Additionally, the process used to add this chemical to manufactured goods attached the particles very loosely. As a result, the compound tends to shed over time through normal wear and tear.

A growing body of evidence suggests that concentrations of this chemical are higher indoors and that it is present in dust. A team of researchers from the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan and Memorial University set out to determine whether they could find bromine in household dust using synchrotron X-ray techniques.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Dr. Peter Blanchard, CLS Associate Scientist, standing in the HXMA beamline at the CLS.

In search of the perfect system

Researchers take a new approach to improve widely used biotechnology tool

The unique relationship between an essential vitamin and a purified bacterial protein has been used as a valuable tool in science and medicine for several decades. Together these two molecules, known as streptavidin and biotin, form a very strong and specific interaction that is invaluable for many biotechnological applications.

Labeling molecules with biotin and detecting them with streptavidin is a common part of many lab tests and has enabled many scientific discoveries in medicine. Streptavidin and biotin are as essential to lab technicians as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. The two molecules combine to form “molecular glue” for many of the tests used to diagnose infectious diseases like HIV, Hepatitis C and Lyme disease, to discover new proteins, viruses and bacteria, and to explore how molecules function in living organisms.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Trapped biotin: A crystal structure of the M88 mutein, determined at the CMCF beamline at CLS, reveals how the engineered disulphide formed between Cys49 and Cys86 (green spheres) partially block the exit pathway for biotin (magenta spheres). Credit: CLS

Powering the future of clean energy

Hydrogen gas can be used to power vehicles and has the potential to provide electricity to homes

The global quest for clean energy is championed by researchers in Canada who are focused on harnessing the potential of hydrogen.

The idea of the hydrogen economy was first proposed 50 years ago as a way to combat the negative effects of fossil fuels. Its future is the focus of new research from the University of Toronto’s Thermofluids for Energy and Advanced Materials (TEAM) lab, whose work relied on the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to visualize performance.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Adam Webb (CLS), Sergey Gasilov (CLS), Manojkumar Balakrishnan (U of T), Jason Keonhag Lee (U of T), Denise Miller (CLS), Kieran Fahy (U of T) on the BMIT beamline at CLS.