The Canadian Light Source at USask. (Photo: CLS)

Canadian Light Source celebrates 20th anniversary of its launch

From the discovery of an enzyme able to turn any blood into a universal donor type, to a process that creates plastic from sunshine and pollution, to identifying heat-tolerance traits in pea varieties, scientific advances achieved at the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) are being celebrated as the institution marks the 20th anniversary of its launch.

“This unique-in-Canada research centre arose from an unprecedented level of collaboration among governments, universities, and industry in Canada, and represents the single largest investment in Canadian science,” said USask President Peter Stoicheff. 

“Strongly endorsed two decades ago by many other universities across Canada and by an international scientific panel, the CLS has made possible cutting-edge research that benefits human and animal health, agriculture, advanced materials, and the environment. For USask’s research community, it has helped us be the university the world needs.” 

Construction of the synchrotron facility on the USask campus began in 1999 and its official opening was held Oct. 22, 2004. Since then, thousands of scientists from across Canada and around the world have come to the CLS to run experiments that could not be done elsewhere in Canada.

“We know the science we do here at the CLS is very complex,” said Chief Executive Officer Robert Lamb. “Most people don’t think about the world and everything in it at the atomic level, the level at which we operate. But the breakthroughs we’ve seen since we began operating are the building blocks for advances that directly and positively affect people’s lives, such a new drugs, more nutritious crops to feed the world, environmentally friendly mining processes, and better batteries for our cell phones.”

Lamb said the breadth of research done at the CLS since 2004 by both staff scientists and scientists from both universities and industry has been extraordinary, “and it has built Canada’s reputation around the world as a leader in synchrotron-based science.”

Part of the anniversary celebration involves highlighting a few of the remarkable projects undertaken using synchrotron techniques, he said. Among them:

  • a study of bone and teeth from Franklin Expedition crew members that showed that lead poisoning, long assumed to have caused their deaths, was in fact not a major contributor;
  • use of synchrotron-enabled science to confirm the effective performance of an engineered tailings management facility built by Orano at its McClean Lake, Sask. uranium processing mill; and
  • discovery of a compound that prevents the formation of the plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s, opening the door to new treatment for a disease that affects over 747,000 people in Canada alone.

“These are among the outstanding projects that demonstrate for Canadians the value this facility brings to leading-edge research that is both life changing and world changing,” said Lamb. 

In addition to cutting-edge research, the CLS has helped to train thousands of students from around the world. Over 3,000 scientists and 1,200 students from 40 countries and 300 institutions have used the CLS in the last 20 years.

The synchrotron operates by accelerating streams of electrons to 99.99 per cent of the speed of light, fast enough to reach the moon in 1.3 seconds. Giant magnets bend the electron beam, creating a light millions of times brighter than the sun. When directed down beamlines, that light enables scientists to do analysis of physical samples such as plants and engine oil that is more detailed than with any other process, as well as to create images of structures at the molecular level.

20 years of discoveries

1. Scientists make breakthrough in creating universal blood type (2019)

A breakthrough in converting all blood types to type O was made by University of British Columbia researchers using our CMCF beamline. The team isolated a pair of enzymes from the gut microbiome of an AB+ donor and, with the help of the CLS, were able to understand a previously unknown enzyme’s affinity for A type blood antigens. This enzyme was able to cleave all A subtypes effectively, allowing the team to convert a unit of type A blood to type O. This converted blood is being tested for any adverse effects and brings the researchers closer to their goal. DOI:10.1038/s41564-019-0469-7. Full story.

2. Keeping wheat from going bad (2011)

Researchers from Manitoba teamed up with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the CLS to investigate how fungi degrade the quality of wheat, impacting how long grain can be stored and decreasing the crop’s value. The CLS enabled the analysis of single kernels to determine the significance of changes in fat and protein content, as well as where damage has occurred in the seed. Wheat harvests add $11 billion yearly to the Canadian economy. DOI: 10.1016/J.JSPR.2011.07.001.

3. Unravelling the fate of the Franklin (2018)

Synchrotron studies of bone and teeth have led a multi-institutional team of scientists to conclude that lead poisoning did not play a pivotal role in the deaths of crew members of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845. The study suggests that severe zinc deficiency from malnutrition played a greater role than lead poisoning in the tragic demise of the crew during their search for the Northwest Passage. “The process of starvation from tuberculosis resulted in the exponential release of previously-stored lead into Hartnell’s blood,” said Christensen. “Lead concentrations were only high and increasing at the end of his life when he was already likely near death. This explains why previous researchers discovered high lead concentrations.” DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0202983. Full story here and here.

4. Preventing heart failure (2018/2019)

A project that used the CLS to help understand the protein responsible for regulating heartbeats found that errors in the protein’s structure can lead to potentially deadly arrhythmias or irregular heart rhythms. Calmodulin (CaM) regulates the signals that tell the heart to contract but it also controls other proteins. This puzzling insight simply adds to the complexities of CaM, which Filip Van Petegem has been pursuing at his University of British Columbia laboratory. For now, he continues to weigh the implications of the imagery provided by the synchrotron. “We would never have predicted beforehand what we saw,” he concluded. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1808733115 DOI:10.1016/j.molcel.2019.04.019. Full story.

5. Environmental impact of uranium mines (2017)

One of Saskatchewan’s longest running uranium operators, Orano, worked with the CLS to demonstrate that its engineered tailings management facility was performing well and would continue to do so as predicted. The processes used at the McClean Lake mill are unique in the mining industry in that ferric sulfate is added to the tailings slurry before being placed in the tailings management facility to sequester arsenic at a near-neutral pH, which was predicted to stabilize arsenic in a rock-like mineral known as scorodite. The mineral scorodite will be stable over geological time periods. This will ensure its operations are sustainable now and protective of the environment for thousands of years into the future. DOI: 10.1016/j.chemgeo.2017.07.014. Full story.

6. Promising new approach to treating leukemia (2019)

By modulating the activity of the ClpP protease in mitochondria, a group of researchers from Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and the University of Toronto have discovered a promising approach to treating leukemia. With the help of the CLS, they visualized the structure of the mitochondrial protein and are better able to understand an important interaction with the anti-cancer drug ONC201. This drug appears to stimulate the ClpP protease, causing hyperactivity of this enzyme, which is responsible for a protein unfolding response. By stimulating this ClpP response in the mitochondria of cancer cells, the researchers found they could induce cell death. “The researchers believe this finding will transform the direction of cancer therapy by focusing on a protein that was previously believed to be impossible to target.” DOI:10.1016/j.ccell.2019.03.014. Full story. 

7. Climate change adaptation: identifying heat tolerance in peas (2014)

Saskatchewan, the leading Canadian exporter of peas, was responsible for 37 per cent of the world’s pea exports in 2012. Heat stress, which can disrupt a plant’s ability to reproduce, has become a major agricultural issue worldwide as average temperatures rise. A research team from the University of Saskatchewan and the CLS was able to identify traits related to heat tolerance in two pea varieties using infrared imaging, and found that heat stress negatively affected pollen germination, pollen tubes, pod length and seed number across both varieties. This showed molecular imaging in plant research could produce greater yields, healthier varieties, and more food for a hungry planet with a rising average temperature.  DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2014.00747. Full story.

8. A new approach for finding Alzheimer’s treatments (2018)

Researchers from McMaster University have found a new way to look for Alzheimer’s treatments, a disease that affects over 747,000 Canadians. Alzheimer’s is caused by peptides in the brain that cluster into plaques which are toxic to the surrounding tissue. The group developed a synthetic membrane to simulate these clusters: by studying how compounds speculated to help with Alzheimer’s affected peptides in the membrane, the researchers found that one compound not only reduced the size of the clusters, but also prevented them from accumulating in the first place. This development is a new way to test potential treatments and help find a method to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-30431-8. Full story.

9. Designing safer batteries (2016)

Lithium-sulfur batteries are considered the most promising candidate for use in electric vehicles thanks to their ultra-high energy density, which is over 5 times the capacity of commercial lithium ion batteries. This high density would make it possible for vehicles to travel longer distances without stopping for a charge. However, batteries operating at the high temperatures necessary in electric vehicles present a safety concern, as fire and other malfunctions become more likely. A team from Western University and CLS has developed safe and durable high-temperature lithium-sulfur batteries by using a new coating technique called molecular layer deposition technology and used the CLS to demonstrate the technique’s efficacy. DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b00577. Full story.

10. New way to produce live-saving medical isotopes (2015)

Canadian Isotope Innovations Corporation (CIIC) experts have created an innovative, cleaner and safe medical isotope production platform that produces high quality technetium-99m (Tc-99m), the most common medical isotope, used globally in over 40 million medical diagnostic tests per year. Radioisotopes are a key component of nuclear medicine, allowing physicians to diagnose a variety of ailments, including issues with thyroid, bones, heart, liver and many other organs. CIIC uses a dedicated linear accelerator facility at the CLS, the first of its kind in the world, to refine the technology and product. The facility was funded by the Natural Resources Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan. In November 2014, the facility successfully demonstrated its production capabilities and continues to refine the process for eventual sale in North America, pending regulatory approvals. Full story.

11. New catalyst converts CO2 to plastic (2018)

The International Energy Agency estimates the production of the main precursors for plastics is responsible for 1.4 per cent of global CO2 emissions. A new technology from the University of Toronto Engineering is taking a substantial step towards enabling manufacturers to create plastics out of two key ingredients: sunshine and pollution. They envision capturing CO2 produced by other industrial process and using renewable electricity—such as solar power—to transform it into ethylene. Ethylene is a common industrial chemical that is a precursor to many plastics, such as those used in grocery bags. By transforming this carbon into a commercially valuable product like ethylene, the team aims to increase the incentives for companies to invest in carbon capture technology. DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9100. Full story.

12. Discovery may help improve cystic fibrosis treatment (2019)

A University of Saskatchewan medical team has made a major discovery with potential for more effective treatments for cystic fibrosis (CF). Doctors typically treat CF patients with an inhaled salt solution that, by drawing water from blood, produces airway surface liquid (ASL), a microscopically thin liquid lining that helps remove secretions from the lungs. The research revealed that only about half of the ASL production is through osmosis; the other half is from the mist stimulating airway neurons. The researchers believe this new understanding of how the body produces ASL will lead to new formulations to maximize the beneficial effect.  DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-36695-4. Full story.

13. Maximizing crop growth (2012)

Researchers from the University of Saskatchewan used the CLS to better understand how phosphorus behaves in prairie soil and which type should be used in fertilizers for optimum growth. The study showed that retention of phosphorus in soil varied depending on the landscape conditions and fertilizer type, making it possible to hone phosphorous for better crop growth in Canada. Phosphate fertilizers represent nearly 20% of total Canadian agriculture fertilizer use.  DOI:10.2136/sssaj2012.0146. Full story.

14. Scientists make important discovery around antibiotic resistance (2017)

Macrolide antibiotics are the fourth largest class of antibiotics and are prescribed for a variety of infectious diseases, including upper respiratory tract, skin and soft tissue infections. Overuse, improper use, and not completing medications have contributed to development of superbugs and their antibiotic resistance. Researchers from McGill University have discovered why superbugs are resistant to certain antibiotics. Bacterial enzymes called kinases stick a phosphate group on to the macrolide antibiotic and that little change is just enough to make them no longer an antibiotic. With this knowledge, they can design a slightly different antibiotic that the enzymes can no longer recognize. DOI:10.1016/j.str.2017.03.007. Full story.

15. Cause of wheat resistance to scab disease discovered (2016)

Fusarium head blight (FHB), also known as scab, is a serious fungal disease that affects wheat and barley in Canada. It can affect up to 50 per cent of crop yields around the world. FHB attacks the plant heads during the crop flowering stage, leading to “tombstone” kernels that are shrivelled up, discoloured, and completely inedible for people and animals. Using a new combination of imaging techniques developed at the light source, plant scientists at the CLS imaged both healthy and infected wheat spikes and florets to understand the development and progression of the disease. They were able to identify markers of early infection and revealed significant differences between resistant and susceptible plants. This provides valuable information on both the infection process and the use of plant imaging techniques. DOI: 10.3389/fmicb.2016.00910. Full story.

16. New research helps in pursuit for malaria vaccine (2018)

Using the CLS, SickKids scientists have taken an important step forward on the path to finding effective biomedical interventions to halt the spread of malaria, a disease endemic to large areas of Africa, Asia and South America that annually kills more than 400,000 people, a majority of whom are children under age 5, with hundreds of millions of new infections every year. Jean-Philippe Julien, a scientist in the Molecular Medicine program at SickKids, and his colleagues focused on a molecule known to be essential for the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum to go through the sexual stages of its lifecycle. Disrupting that stage of the lifecycle has the potential to reduce infections and deaths from malaria because parasite transmission between humans would be blocked by inhibiting parasite development in the Anopheles mosquito. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-06742-9. Full story.

17. Restoring our past (2018)

The Canadian Photography Institute has more than 2,700 daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography, in its collection. Since daguerreotypes were made on silver plates, they often become scratched and degraded over time. Scientists from Western University learned how to use synchrotron light to see the photographs beneath this degradation. Two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit, taken as early as 1850, were retrieved even though, to the naked eye, these images were beyond recognition. By improving the process of restoring these centuries-old images, the scientists are contributing to the historical record. What was thought to be lost, that showed the life and times of people from the 19th century, can now be found. DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-27714-5. Full story.

18. Scientists discover that charcoal traps ammonia (2019)

Discovery could have implications for agricultural management and climate change mitigation. Cornell University scientists Rachel Hestrin and Johannes Lehmann, along with collaborators from Canada and Australia, have shown that charcoal can mop up large quantities of nitrogen from the air pollutant ammonia, resulting in a potential slow-release fertilizer with more nitrogen than most animal manures or other natural soil amendments. Hestrin says that using the beamline capabilities at the CLS was essential to this game-changing discovery and turned it into a much bigger project than originally planned. DOI:10.1038/s41467-019-08401-z. Full story.

19. Canadian physicists discover new properties of superconductivity (2016)

An international team of physicists has come one step closer to understanding the mystery of how superconductivity, an exotic state that allows electricity to be conducted with zero resistance, occurs in certain materials. Superconductors are vital to MRI machines and could be used to create ultra-efficient power grids, supercomputers and magnetically levitating vehicles. The new findings present direct experimental evidence of what is known as electronic nematicity – when electron clouds snap into an aligned and directional order – in a particular type of high-temperature superconductor. The results may eventually lead to a theory explaining why superconductivity occurs at higher temperatures in certain materials. DOI: 10.1126/science.aad1824. Full story.

20. Graphene: the material of the future (2011)

Graphene, a one-atom thick graphite crystal (the same stuff in pencil mines), intrigues scientists with its excellent conductivity and thermal conductivity. The first STXM scans of the material, which is already being used in “smart” electronics’ windows that harvest light, revealed electronic and physical structures which are invaluable to the development of new applications. Graphene is the most likely replacement for silicon within the next few years, and holds enormous potential impact for the $2 trillion global electronics industry sector. This research was done by scientists from Berkeley and Buffalo. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms1376. Full story.

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