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.

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.

Solar hydrogen production by artificial leafs

Scientists analysed how a special treatment improves cheap metal oxide photoelectrodes

Metal oxides are promising candidates for cheap and stable photoelectrodes for solar water splitting, producing hydrogen with sunlight. Unfortunately, metal oxides are not highly efficient in this job. A known remedy is a treatment with heat and hydrogen. An international collaboration has now discovered why this treatment works so well, paving the way to more efficient and cheap devices for solar hydrogen production.

The fossil fuel age is bound to end, for several strong reasons. As an alternative to fossil fuels, hydrogen seems very attractive. The gas has a huge energy density, it can be stored or processed further, e. g. to methane, or directly provide clean electricity via a fuel cell. If it is produced using sunlight alone, hydrogen is completely renewable with zero carbon emissions.

>Read More

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.