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Analytical tool opening new worlds in health, environmental cleanup

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March 07, 1995 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. — In 1590, Dutch optician Zacharias Janssen opened new worlds when he created the first compound microscope. The innovation enabled scientists to view many tiny objects for the first time and ultimately led to advances in medicine, biology and criminology.

Now, researchers at a new U.S. Department of Energy laboratory in Washington state are using an analytical device thousands of times more powerful than Janssen's microscope with the hope that it too will lead to major scientific advances.

The researchers are using a suite of nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers -- including the world's most powerful commercial NMR -- to find answers to biological and molecular problems related to human health and environmental restoration.

An NMR spectrometer is a large, battery-shaped analytical tool that can provide molecular-level information about a variety of materials in their natural state, including inside the human body. Instead of using glass lenses, NMRs view microscopic objects by using superconducting magnets and radio waves.

The research is taking place at DOE's new Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory in Richland, Wash. The EMSL is located at DOE's Pacific Northwest Laboratory, one of nine DOE multiprogram, national laboratories.

In health effects research, EMSL scientists are using NMR spectrometers to examine possible biological effects resulting from exposure to chemicals or radiation. According to Dr. Michael Kennedy, EMSL researchers hope to understand how proteins recognize DNA damage in cells, which is important because the function of many proteins inside cells depends on their ability to bind to specific sequences of DNA. "When DNA damage goes unrepaired, the proteins may act differently when they encounter the DNA," he says.

"The knowledge gained from this study will help us better understand DNA-protein interactions and how damaged DNA affects human health," Kennedy adds.

"Results from this research will aid in the design of exposure standards for environmental cleanup workers and the general public," adds EMSL Director, Dr. Thom Dunning.

In environmental research, the NMRs are being used to examine catalytic conversion of environmental toxins, to determine the structure of enzymes that might be used in bioremediation and to study the physical integrity of materials used for waste storage.

In one project, EMSL researchers are using the NMRs to determine how carbon tetrachloride is destroyed when it is converted to methane gas during cleanup. This knowledge could lead to better catalysts that can destroy a wider range of contaminants. "It adds another dimension to the important problem of environmental remediation," says Dr. Paul Ellis, head of the EMSL's macromolecular structure and dynamics group. "However, more research is needed to test the applicability of such methods."

The EMSL catalysis research will have applications wherever toxic materials are used, including energy, petrochemical, fuel and plastics production or manufacturing sites.

In late 1996 or early 1997, the EMSL will take delivery of the world's first 900-1000 megahertz NMR, which is being designed and built by the University of Washington and Oxford Instruments. According to Kennedy, the $10-million research tool will be used to study more complex problems and to study them faster and in greater detail.

The magnet and encompassing metal container, known as the dewar assembly, will stand as high as 6.37 meters (21 feet) and be enclosed by an iron shield. The shield is necessary to ensure the stability of the magnet during experiments. "The new magnet, in combination with our other NMRs, will make the EMSL one of the foremost NMR spectroscopy laboratories in the world," says Ellis.

The $230-million EMSL is currently under construction in Richland. Researchers are using interim facilities at PNL until it is completed in 1997. When finished, the 200,000-square-foot EMSL will house up to 270 permanent staff, postdoctoral associates, visiting scientists and students who will work to develop the science and technology needed to clean up environmental problems at government and industrial sites across the country. Research conducted at the national user facility also is expected to lead to advances in energy, new materials, health and medicine, transportation and agriculture.

Tags: Energy, Environment, Fundamental Science, EMSL, Operations, Environmental Remediation, Biology, Catalysis, Facilities

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