The Brain Revisited

How does it work? Mazes of neurons all joined together by trillions of synaptic connections…

Everything we do – from writing our name to remembering it – is the result of billions of nerve cells, also known as neurons, firing electro-chemical signals through our brains. The way we experience the world around us is tied up in these mazes of neurons, all joined together by trillions of synaptic connections. Thanks to all this processing power, our brains are more complex than any computer system on earth.

The astonishing intricacy of our brains allows us to perform incredible feats of thought. But there’s also a downside to possessing all this brain power. With all that complex machinery at play, errors in the system can spell big trouble for our health. Neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are linked to problems with the brain’s neural network. Because these networks are so labyrinthine, we don’t yet understand the brain and, in turn, how to combat neurological conditions, as well as we’d like.

New approach to imaging single biological particles

As part of an international collaboration, scientists at European XFEL have developed and tested a novel approach for processing data from single biological particles such as proteins and viruses. Based on an idea first proposed over 40 years ago, the new method overcomes several problems of traditional approaches and could also have applications for other structural biology methods. The method is published today in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: Schematic illustration of the new approach. Many X-ray diffraction snapshots recorded in the XFEL experiment (left) […]. Source: European XFEL website

Researchers explore ways to remove antibiotics polluting lakes and rivers

Pre-treated barley straw is showing promise as an environmentally-friendly material.

Pre-treated barley straw could be used to help soak up certain types of antibiotics polluting waterways. Pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, are an increasingly common pollutant in water systems, says Catherine Hui Niu, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.

After pharmaceuticals are used in humans and animals, traces are excreted and end up in sewage and, from there, into the environment. Their presence in waterways has raised concerns about potential risks to human health and ecosystems. To date there has been no effective way to remove them from water sources.

There are some materials that attract pharmaceutical pollutants to them in a process called adsorption, and could hypothetically be used to help remove them from water, says Niu. But their adsorption capacities need to be enhanced to make them useful for large scale clean-up efforts.

New insights about malaria parasites infection mechanisms

Unraveled details about how the malaria parasite acts after invading the red blood cells.

This highlight has been possible thanks to two advanced microscope techniques combination: X-ray fluorescence microscopy and soft X-rays tomography, this one conducted in ALBA Synchrotron. Infected red blood cells image analysis offer new information that could yield new drugs design against malaria, an illness that claims over 400.000 lives each year.
Plasmodium falciparum causes the malaria disease. This parasite, transmitted through mosquito sting, infects red blood cells of its victim. Once inside, it uses hemoglobin (the protein in charge of oxygen transport) as a nutrient. When it is digested, iron is released in a form of heme molecules. These heme molecules are toxic to the parasite, but it has a strategy to make them harmless: it packs heme in pairs and finally they are packed forming hemozoin crystals. In this way, poisonous iron is locked up and no longer will be a threat for the parasite.

>Read More on the ALBA website

Infographic: Model for biochemistry processes that occur inside the parasite. The parasite takes the hemoglobin from the red blood cell (RBC)
1 and digests it inside the digestive vacuole (DV)
2. as a consequence, heme groups are released
3. and HDP protein packages them in pairs (heme dimers)
4. finally, in the crystallization process these dimers are converted in hemozoin crystals
5. blue arrow points out the suggested feedback mechanism that regulates hemoglobin degradation.

Significant step made towards understanding Rift Valley Fever virus

First insight into the architecture of viral filaments

Researchers at the Universities of St Andrews and Glasgow have made a significant step forward in tackling a viral disease which causes frequent epidemics in Africa and could spread to Europe due to global warming.

Dr Michal Barski and Dr Uli Schwarz-Linek of the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews, with colleagues at the University of Glasgow, have published a paper in online journal eLife revealing new information about a key molecule used by the virus to cause disease, which could help to eventually find a cure or a vaccine.

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High-Speed Movie Aids Scientists Who Design Glowing Molecules

A research team captured ultrafast changes in fluorescent proteins between “dark” and “light” states.

The crystal jellyfish swims off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and can illuminate the waters when disturbed. That glow comes from proteins that absorb energy and then release it as bright flashes.

To track many of life’s activities, biologists took a cue from this same jellyfish.

Scientists collected one of the proteins found in the sea creatures, green fluorescent protein (GFP), and engineered a molecular light switch that would glow or remain dark depending on specific experimental conditions. The glowing labels are attached to molecules in living cells so researchers can highlight them during imaging experiments. They use these fluorescent markers to understand how a cell responds to changes in its environment, identify which molecules interact within a cell and track the effects of genetic mutations.

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Picture: Aequorea victoria, also called the crystal jelly, is a bioluminescent jellyfish that lives near the Pacific coast of North America. (Gary Kavanagh/


Scientist combines medicine and engineering to repair a damaged heart

Regenerating heart muscle tissue using a 3D printer – once the stuff of Star Trek science fiction – now appears to be firmly in the realm of the possible.

The combination of the Canadian Light Source synchrotron’s unique biomedical imaging and therapy (BMIT) beamline and the vision of a multi-discipline researcher from the University of Saskatchewan in confirming fiction as fact was published in the September issue of Tissue Engineering, one of the leading journals in this emerging global research field of tissue regeneration.

U of S researcher Mohammad Izadifar says he is combining medicine and engineering to develop ways to repair a damaged heart. “The problem is the heart cannot repair itself once it is damaged due to a heart attack.” he explained.

Izadifar has conducted his research out of three places on campus – the College of Engineering, the CLS and the College of Medicine where he has been certified in doing open heart surgery on rats, having trained in all the ethical protocols related to these research animals.

Researchers develop technique to reuse carbon dioxide and methane, slowing climate change

Reusing carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane waste emissions from industrial sources is closer to reality.

And this  thanks to recent findings from a project conducted at the Canadian Light Source and the University of Saskatchewan. CO2 and methane are the most significant greenhouse gases resulting from human activity, says Dr. Hui Wang, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.

Capturing CO2 and methane emissions from industrial sources and reusing them could reduce the threat on the world’s ecosystem by slowing climate change, says Dr. Wang, the principal researcher of a paper published in Catalyst Today.

CO2 and methane can be triggered to undergo chemical reactions with each other to create synthesis gas or syngas. Syngas is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which can be used to synthesize a variety of liquid fuels or ammonia.

This reaction between CO2 and methane, also called ‘dry reforming of methane’, has not been fully scaled-up for commercial use due to lack of an inexpensive and industrially viable catalyst. Catalysts are used to speed up chemical reactions.

Molecular Movie

Researchers Create Molecular Movie of Virus Preparing to Infect Healthy Cells

With SLAC’s X-ray laser, scientists captured a virus changing shape and rearranging its genome to invade a cell.

A research team has created for the first time a movie with nanoscale resolution of the three-dimensional changes a virus undergoes as it prepares to infect a healthy cell. The scientists analyzed thousands of individual snapshots from intense X-ray flashes, capturing the process in an experiment at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

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Growing a better polio vaccine

Researchers use plants as factories to produce a safer polio vaccine

Successful vaccination campaigns have reduced the number of polio cases by over 99% in the last several decades. However, producing the vaccines entails maintaining a large stock of poliovirus, raising the risk that the disease may accidentally be reintroduced.
Outbreaks can also occur due to mutation of the weakened poliovirus used in the oral vaccine. In addition, the oral vaccine has to be stored at cold temperatures. To address these shortcomings, an international team of researchers across the UK has engineered plants that produce virus-like particles derived from poliovirus, which can serve as a vaccine.
They report the success of this approach in a paper appearing in Nature Communications. The team confirmed the structure of the virus-like particles by cryo-electron microscopy at Diamond Light Source’s Electron Bio-Imaging Centre (eBIC) and showed that the particles effectively protected mice from infection with poliovirus. This proof-of-principle study demonstrates that a safe, effective polio vaccine can be produced in plants and raises the possibility of using the same approach to tackle other viruses.

A Bacterial Jigsaw Puzzle Is Solved

Scientists worked on bacterial microcompartments  and discovered how the pieces fit together.

Bacterial microcompartments (BMCs) are hollow protein shells that encapsulate enzymes involved in bacterial metabolism. They serve to co-localize the enzymes and their reactants for greater efficiency, as well as to sequester reaction products from the rest of the cell. Despite the availability of structural information on individual shell components, the principles governing how the pieces fit together have remained elusive.

Researchers have now performed protein crystallography studies at the ALS and at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) of a fully assembled BMC as well as its separate building blocks. The resulting atomic-resolution views reveal the basic principles of shell construction and provide important information for fighting pathogens and for bioenergy or biotechnology applications.

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Direct and Efficient Utilization of Solid-phase Iron by Diatoms

A research team indicates that diatoms, can directly uptake iron from insoluble iron sediments, and thereby potentially affect atmospheric carbon dioxide level.

A research team from Columbia University indicates that diatoms, photosynthetic marine organisms responsible for as much as 20% of photosynthesis in the world’s oceans, can directly uptake iron from insoluble iron sediments, and thereby potentially affect atmospheric carbon dioxide level. Although iron is often present in the ocean, usually there is insufficient iron for diatoms and other organisms to grow quickly unless this iron is dissolved and in a form that can be used readily. This research establishes that iron from mineral phases can be quite bioavailable, and that the diatoms can use most forms of iron, but appear to have a preference for a specific form of iron, ferrous iron, in the mineral phases. This research is applicable to a wide variety of questions in earth and ocean sciences, including basic biology of nutrient acquisition, the coupling of physical and geological processes such as glaciers to climate and geoengineering.

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Picture: Glacial striations seen near Upsala Glacier, Argentina, where scientists collected glacial samples. This physical scraping produces sediments and dust that can fertilize plankton when it is delivered to the ocean.
Photo by Michael Kaplan/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Illuminating extinct plants generates new knowledge

By using infrared micro-spectroscopy at beamline D7 situated at the MAX III storage ring (closed December 2015) scientists from Lund University, Vilnius University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm have been able to identify molecular signatures of fossil leaves. Through the research the scientists have been able to establish relationships between 200-million-year-old plants based on their chemical fingerprints.

Read more on the MAX-IV website

Image: Leaves on a Gingko tree growing on the inner yard of MAX IV Laboratory in Lund. Credit: MAX-IV

From Community to Molecule – on Track Towards a Zika Vaccine

A potent new weapon against the Zika virus in the blood of people who have been infected by it.

A research team based at The Rockefeller University has identified a potent new weapon against the Zika virus in the blood of people who have been infected by it. This discovery could lead to new ways of fighting the disease. Detailed examination of the interaction between the virus and antibodies derived from human subjects in Brazil and Mexico, including crystallographic studies performed at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsourse (SSRL), have revealed a new potential strategy for developing a vaccine towards this virus.

Through collaborators working in Pau da Lima, Brazil, and Santa Maria Mixtequilla, Mexico, the research team obtained blood samples from more than 400 people, collected shortly after Zika was circulating.

In these samples, antibodies that block the virus from initiating an infection were found. Interestingly, the antibodies appeared to have been initially generated in response to an earlier infection by a related virus (DENV1) that causes dengue fever. It appears that, much like a vaccine, the DENV1 virus can prime the immune system to respond to Zika.