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February 04, 2004— Ottawa, Ontario

The leaf of a canola plant, exhibiting lesions caused by blackleg disease.
The leaf of a canola plant, exhibiting lesions caused by blackleg disease.

A growing proportion of synchrotron users around the world are researchers in the life sciences who use synchrotron radiation to determine the atomic structures of biological macromolecules such as proteins in a technique known as X-ray crystallography.

When X-ray light is shone through a crystal, the individual atoms of the structure scatter the light making ripples - like the ripples that spread from twigs sticking out of a pond. Where the wave crests scattered from two atoms of the structure meet, bright spots are detected, and dark spots result where crest and trough have cancelled out. Working backwards, it is possible to determine the crystal structure from this information. You can't do this with visible light because the wavelength is too long - the wave crest is broad and extends over many atoms, so there is little difference between the ripples from individual atoms, and no sensitivity to their arrangement.

For plant scientists, X-ray crystallography can assist in developing plants with improved resistance to pathogens. Diseases are a major cause of crop loss, while fungal toxins represent a significant food safety concern, and the use of chemical pesticides can result in environmental damage. An environmentally friendly and cost-effective solution would be to breed or engineer crops exhibiting genetic resistance. To do this, the plant scientist makes use of detailed knowledge of the structure of plant proteins involved in the transfer of genetic information. The Canadian Light Source can provide that knowledge.

Crop Pest Resistance at NRC-PBI

Substantial loss of revenue occurs each year in Western Canada due to infection of canola crops by the blackleg fungal disease.

Dr. Pierre Fobert of the NRC Plant Biotechnology Institute (NRC-PBI) plans to use the synchrotron to provide a careful delineation of the molecular surfaces which interact when a plant wards off a pathogen attack.

This information could lead to the development or selection of a canola strain with natural resistance to the blackleg disease.


Three dimensional structure of a protein in the E. coli model bacterium.
Three dimensional structure of a protein in the E. coli model bacterium.


For scientists at the NRC Biotechnology Research Institute (NRC-BRI), on the other hand, the CLS protein crystallography beamline represents a modern facility for the characterization of proteins from bacteria.


Understanding Bacterial Pathogens at NRC-BRI

Dr. Mirek Cygler of the NRC Biotechnology Research Institute (NRC-BRI) has characterized several proteins of an important pathogenic strain of the E. coli bacterium.

According to Dr. Cygler, "The CLS protein crystallography beamline will be a modern facility supporting the first-class research in structural biology carried on in Canadian laboratories."

Dr. Cygler has participated in the committee supervising the construction of the protein crystallography beamline at the CLS. He and team members will bring considerable expertise in structural genomics, and experience with high-throughput data collection, back to Canada in 2004.

The emergence of bacterial strains showing resistance to the current arsenal of antibiotics is a threat to public health. Many of the resistant strains first manifest in hospitals, where there are vulnerable patients. Pharmaceutical companies have therefore invested in programs dedicated to the development of novel antibacterial drugs. Scientists at NRC-BRI have been contributing to this effort, using a synchrotron in the U.S. to identify the structures of those proteins in a bacterial pathogen responsible for its survival, or involved in the pathogenic process. The understanding of protein-drug interactions provided by crystal structures has already enabled the design of antiviral drugs against AIDS. The work of NRC crystallographers at the CLS to provide structural knowledge of proteins in bacterial pathogens may one day be used to develop novel approaches to treat bacterial infection.

Follow the links below to learn more about NRC projects planned for the Canadian Light Source.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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