Developing more nutritious crops to feed a growing world

Using synchrotron light to analyze new varieties of peas could be faster, more environmentally friendly, and help to nourish underfed populations around the world.

With thousands of seed samples produced every growing season, Dr. Tom Warkentin needs fast, accurate and cost-effective techniques to assess the nutritional value of the pea varieties he has developed. Now, thanks to two recent studies, techniques available at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron at the University of Saskatchewan show promise for Warkentin and many other plant breeders.

“These studies arose from the question, ‘Can we use the synchrotron to measure the nutrient traits in pea seeds?,’” explained Warkentin, professor of plant science and pulse breeder in the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources. “Improving the nutritional value of peas is a higher and higher priority for us in plant breeding so we wanted to look at the standard approaches we’ve been using to measure nutritional traits versus the techniques available at the CLS.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Scientists Tom Warkentin, Chithra Karunakaran, Jarvis Stobbs, and David Muir with pea samples at our IDEAS beamline.

Analyzing poppies to make better drugs

A team of researchers from the University of Calgary has uncovered new information about a class of plant enzymes that could have implications for the pharmaceutical industry. In a paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the scientists explain how they revealed molecular details of an enzyme class that is central to the synthesis of many widely used pharmaceuticals, including the painkillers codeine and morphine.  

The team used the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to better understand how the enzyme behaves, which is crucial for unleashing its potential to make novel medicines. “Until this study, we didn’t know the key structural details of the enzyme. We learned from the structure of the enzyme bound to the product how the methylation reaction locks the product into a certain stereochemistry. It was completely unknown how the enzyme did that before we determined this structure,” corresponding author Dr. Kenneth Ng explained.

Stereochemistry is an important concept when it comes to safety and efficacy in drug design. A molecule can have a few different arrangements—similar to how your left hand is a mirror image of your right hand. These arrangements can lead to very different effects.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: group photo of some of the researchers involved with this project. From left to right: Ken Ng (Professor and corresponding author), Jeremy Morris (PhD graduate and second author), Dean Lang (PhD student and first author), and Peter Facchini (Professor, CSO of Willow Biosciences and senior author).

Analyzing the world’s oldest woddy plant fossil

Scientists investigate the early evolution of tissue systems in plants.

Mapping the evolution of life on Earth requires a detailed understanding of the fossil record, and scientists are using synchrotron-based technologies to look back—way, way back—at the cell structure and chemistry of the earliest known woody plant. Dr. Christine Strullu-Derrien and colleagues used the Canadian Light Source’s SM[1] beamline at the University of Saskatchewan to study Armoricaphyton chateaupannense, an extinct woody plant that is about 400 million years old. Their research focused on lignin, an organic compound in the plant tracheids, elongated cells that help transport water and mineral salts. Lignin makes the cells walls rigid and less water permeable, thereby improving the conductivity of their vascular system.
Strullu-Derrien, a scientific associate at the Natural History Museum in London, England and the Natural History Museum in Paris, France, had described A. chateaupannense some years ago and returned to it for this project.
“Studies have been done previously on Devonian plants but they were not woody,” she said. “A. chateaupannense is the earliest known woody plant and it’s preserved in both 2D form as flat carbonaceous films and 3D organo-mineral structures. This allows for comparison to be done between the two types of preservation,” she said.
Although the fossils used in the study were collected in the Armorican Massif, a geologically significant region of hills and flatlands in western France, Strullu-Derrien said early Devonian woody plants have also been found in New Brunswick and the Gaspé area in Quebec “although these are 10 million years younger than the French one.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: A, photograph of Armoricaphyton chateaupannense preserved in 2D as carbonaceous thin films. B, SEM image of a transverse section of an axis of a specimen of A. chateaupannense preserved in 3D showing the radially aligned tracheids.

Unraveling plants resistance to drought

Research investigates the chemical nanostructure of water conducting vessels.

Plant cells are encased in a structure called the cell wall, composed mainly of cellulose and lignin. Among other functions, this wall gives structural stability to the cells and controls the entry of water, minerals and other substances. When they die, the cells leave behind their cell wall, forming different structures that support the plant giving rigidity to the stems and that facilitate the transport of substances from the roots to the leaves and vice versa. One such structure is the xylem: a continuous network of conduits about 100 micrometers in diameter that carries the water absorbed by the roots to the leaves.

When they lose water by transpiration, the leaves generate tension in the water column within the xylem. The pressure difference between the interior and exterior of the conduit causes the molecules to behave as links in a current: when a molecule of water evaporates, the rest of the “current” is pulled up.

>Read more on the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory at CNPEM website

Image: Schematic figure of the technique of infrared nanospectroscopy.

Analysing the structure of biopolymers for the food industry

A research group from the Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA-CSIC) in Valencia is using scattering techniques at the ALBA Synchrotron to develop new packaging systems made of biopolymers, an environmentally friendly solution for the food industry.

Plastic is the packaging material of most of the food we consume nowadays. This results in a severe problem as common plastics are made of petroleum – a limited resource with highly variable price – and supposes a huge environmental impact – most plastic wastes need more than 400 years to decompose.

Researchers from the Food Safety and Preservation department of the Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA-CSIC), located in Paterna (Valencia), are looking for more sustainable ways of producing food packaging with appropriate mechanical and chemical properties. They are investigating biopolymers that can be made from biomass such as algae.
“We need to look for alternative sources which do not compete with food. This is why marine resources such as algae and microalgae are very interesting. They proliferate very quickly, grow in a wide variety of environments and do not interfere with food production”, according to Ámparo López-Rubio, researcher at the IATA-CSIC.

>Read more on the ALBA website

Image: At the left, Juan Carlos Martínez, scientist from the ALBA Synchrotron with users Amparo López Rubio and Marta Martínez Sanz from IATA-CSIC at the NCD-SWEET experimental hutch.

Infrared beams show cell types in a different light

Berkeley Lab scientists developing new system to identify cell differences.

By shining highly focused infrared light on living cells, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) hope to unmask individual cell identities, and to diagnose whether the cells are diseased or healthy.
They will use their technique to produce detailed, color-based maps of individual cells and collections of cells – in microscopic and eventually nanoscale detail – that will be analyzed using machine-learning techniques to automatically sort out cell characteristics.

Using microscopic color maps to unlock cell identity

Their focus is on developing a rapid way to easily identify cell types, and features within cells, to aid in biological and medical research by providing a way to probe living cells in their native environment without harming the cells or requiring obtrusive cell-labeling techniques.
“This is totally noninvasive,” said Cynthia McMurray, a biochemist and senior scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging (MBIB) Division who is leading this new imaging effort with Michael Martin, a physicist and senior staff scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS).
The ALS has dozens of beamlines that produce beams of intensely focused light, from infrared to X-rays, for a broad range of experiments.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website

Image: From left to right: Aris Polyzos, Edward Barnard, and Lila Lovergne, pictured here at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source, are part of a research team that is developing a cell-identification technique based on infrared imaging and machine learning.
Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab

Plant roots police toxic pollutants

X-ray studies reveal details of how P. juliflora shrub roots scavenge and immobilize arsenic from toxic mine tailings.

Working in collaboration with scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, researchers at the University of Arizona have identified details of how certain plants scavenge and accumulate pollutants in contaminated soil. Their work revealed that plant roots effectively “lock up” toxic arsenic found loose in mine tailings—piles of crushed rock, fluid, and soil left behind after the extraction of minerals and metals. The research shows that this strategy of using plants to stabilize pollutants, called phytostabilization, could even be used in arid areas where plants require more watering, because the plant root activity alters the pollutants to forms that are unlikely to leach into groundwater.

The Arizona based researchers were particularly concerned with exploring phytostabilization strategies for mining regions in the southwestern U.S., where tailings can contain high levels of arsenic, a contaminant that has toxic effects on humans and animals. In the arid environment with low levels of vegetation, wind and water erosion can carry arsenic and other metal pollutants to neighboring communities.

>Read more on the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) website

Image: Scientists from the University of Arizona collect plant samples from the mine tailings at the Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter Superfund site in central Arizona. X-ray studies at Brookhaven Lab helped reveal how these plants’ roots lock up toxic forms of arsenic in the soil.
Credit: Jon Chorover

Fuel cells from plants

Using elements in plants to increase fuel cell efficiency while reducing costs

Researchers from the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, Québec are looking into reeds, tall wetlands plants, in order to make cheaper catalysts for high-performance fuel cells.

Due to rising global energy demands and the threat caused by environmental pollution, the search for new, clean sources of energy is on.

Unlike a battery, which stores electricity for later use, a fuel cell generates electricity from stored materials, or fuels.

Hydrogen-based fuel is a very clean fuel source that only produces water as a by-product, and could effectively replace fossil fuels. In order to make hydrogen fuel viable for everyday use, high-performance fuel cells are needed to convert the energy from the hydrogen into electricity.

Hydrogen fuel cells use platinum catalysts to drive energy conversion, but the platinum is expensive, accounting for almost half of a fuel cell’s total cost according to Qiliang Wei, a PhD student in Shuhui Sun’s group from the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique – Énergie, Matériaux et Télécommunications who studies lower-cost alternatives to platinum catalysts.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

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

 

Combining X-ray techniques for powerful insights into hyperaccumulator plants

The complementary power of combining multiple X-ray techniques to understand the unusual properties of hyperaccumulator plants has been highlighted in a new cover article just published in New Phytologist.

X-ray fluorescence microscopy (XFM) at the Australian Synchrotron has been used by a consortium of international researchers led by Dr Antony van der Ent of the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation at The University of Queensland, in association with A/Prof Peter Kopittke of the School of Agriculture and Food Science also at The University of Queensland.

The XFM technique generates elemental maps showing where elements of interest are found within plant tissue, seedlings or individual cells.
Visually striking images (obtained at the XFM beamline) show various hyperaccumulator plants, on the cover of the April issue of New Phytologist. In the images each element is depicted in a different colour, making up a red-green-blue (RGB) image.

“Hyperaccumulator plants have the unusual ability to accumulate extreme concentrations of metals and metalloids in their living tissues,” said van der Ent.
“Hyperaccumulators are of scientific interest because whilst metals are normally toxic to plants even at low concentrations, these plants are able to accumulate large concentrations without any toxic effects,” he added

>Read more on the Autralian Synchrotron website

Image: X‐ray Fluorescence (XRF) elemental maps of hyperaccumulator plants. The tricolour composite images show (left to right) root cross‐section of Senecio coronatus (red, iron; green, nickel; blue, potassium); and seedlings of Alyssum murale (red, calcium; green, nickel; blue, Compton scatter).
Credit: A. van der Ent. 

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.

New screening technique will allow crop breeders to develop drought resistant varieties faster

Scientists from the Canadian Light Source (CLS) have teamed up with researchers from the University of Saskatchewan to develop a new technique to examine drought tolerance in wheat.

Chithra Karunakaran and Karen Tanino’s team developed a simple non-destructive method to screen hundreds of wheat leaf samples in a day, reducing the time and cost associated with traditional breeding programs to select varieties for drought tolerance. Their findings were published in the November issue of Physiologia Plantarum.

“Developing these types of tools better enables physiologists to complement breeding programs,” says Tanino, Professor of Plant Sciences at the U of S.

 

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

New Catalyst Gives Artificial Photosynthesis a Big Boost

Inspired by plants: Inorganic catalyst converts electrical energy to chemical energy at 64% efficiency

Researchers have created a new catalyst that brings them one step closer to artificial photosynthesis — a system that would use renewable energy to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into stored chemical energy.

As in plants, their system consists of two linked chemical reactions: one that splits water (H2O) into protons and oxygen gas, and another that converts CO2 into carbon monoxide (CO). The CO can then be converted into hydrocarbon fuels through an established industrial process. The system would allow both the capture of carbon emissions and the storage of energy from solar or wind power.

Yufeng Liang and David Prendergast – scientists at the Molecular Foundry, a nanoscale research facility at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) – performed theoretical modeling work used to interpret X-ray spectroscopy measurements made in the study, published Nov. 20 in Nature Chemistry. This work was done in support of a project originally proposed by the University of Toronto team to the Molecular Foundry, a DOE Office of Science User Facility.

 

>Read more on the ALS website

Image: Phil De Luna of University of Toronto is one of the lead authors of a new study that reports a low-cost, highly efficient catalyst for chemical conversion of water into oxygen. The catalyst is part of an artificial photosynthesis system in development at the University of Toronto.
Credit: Tyler Irving/University of Toronto

Research on soil acidity could lead to new wheat varieties

Food production will need to double by the time Earth’s population grows to nine billion people by 2050.

This is a challenge that motivates scientists the world over and Australian crop scientist and plant nutritionist Peter Kopittke is no exception.

The young scientist spent a few days this past summer in the heart of Canada’s wheat belt working on the problem of aluminum toxicity in acidic soil. It’s a problem that affects wheat growers in many parts of the world although not in Saskatchewan, home to the CLS, where Kopittke spent an intense 36 hours earlier this year.

Globally, it is estimated that acid soils result in more than US$129 billion in lost production annually. In Western Australia, farmers lose A$1.5 billion annually because the aluminum in the soil destroys the root system, killing the plant.

Kopittke, associate professor in soil and environmental sciences at The University of Queensland, explains that few Saskatchewan wheat farmers will have ever heard of the aluminum toxicity problem as arable land in Saskatchewan is mostly alkaline, a pH condition that does result in any uptake of the element in plant roots. But Kopittke points out that 30 to 40 per cent of all the arable land in the world is acidic and aluminum is the third most common element in the world.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Wheat seedlings grown in soils containing increasing levels of soluble aluminum. Roots at high aluminum are stunted with few branches.
Image courtesy of Steve Carr, Aglime Australia.

 

World Polio Day

Are we nearing the end of the war on polio?

There was a time when the word itself was enough to strike fear into the hearts of people around the world. Polio: a highly infectious virus that could shatter young lives in the blink of an eye. On the 24th of October, we mark World Polio Day, and this is something worth celebrating. Because whilst the story isn’t over yet, it may well be nearing its end.

Polio has been around since before records began, but it wasn’t until the early-twentieth century that epidemics began to sweep through communities in Europe and America, affecting many thousands of children and families.

It’s hard to underestimate the terror once caused by polio. At its height in the 1950s, parents routinely lived in fear of their children becoming quarantined, paralysed or even worse. It was a dark time in medical history but, despite this, polio really is a success story for modern science.