Drew Griffin, Sales Manager – Northeast, EDAX/Gatan
As a classically trained chemist, most of my career has been spent looking into the challenges presented within the materials science world. Not so coincidentally, I never spent much time thinking about the problems that face our scientific brethren in the life sciences. Cells, tissues, biomolecules – these things were the squishy equivalent of a foreign language to me.
In the past few years, while working in the Atomic Force Microscopy space and the Electron Microscopy (EM) space, I kept coming across researchers from the life sciences who asked questions that sounded more and more like traditional materials science questions. What is the structure of my biomolecule? What elements are present, and in what proportion in this tissue or vesicle? What are the mechanical properties of my cell? And I thought, what kinds of questions should we be asking, and where can we use classic materials analysis methods (in this case, Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDS)) to answer questions in the life sciences? Like any good researcher, this led me to a literature search to see what’s been done before. I’d like to share what I found and what problems we can potentially solve with EDS.
Taking a half-step back, I should briefly explain the principles of EDS as a technique to make sure we’re all on the same page. The too long; didn’t read (TL;DR) explanation of EDS goes something like this. When the electron beam interacts with a sample within an electron microscope, X-rays are emitted. Each element releases X-rays with a unique energy signature, proportionally increasing as a function of their atomic number (e.g., carbon X-rays are lower energy than iron X-rays, which are lower still than lead X-rays). An EDS X-ray detector (like EDAX manufactures) captures these X-rays, identifies the elements present in the sample, and quantifies their concentration. The big advantage of an EDS detector in your SEM is identifying which elements are present. The disadvantages are that it doesn’t discriminate the structure of how these elements are bonded to one another, what molecules or more complex compounds might be present, and historically, EDS hasn’t been tremendously efficient at detecting or quantifying elements lighter than, say, fluorine (the latest generation EDS detectors by-and-large have overcome this, and now routinely measure elements as light as boron, beryllium, and in the right conditions, lithium).
The latter disadvantage has historically been only part of the limiting factor in the general acceptance of EDS in the life science community. Biological systems are basically a collection of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, and the structural arrangement of these elements is what matters. EDS didn’t do that, unlike, say, vibrational spectroscopy (Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) or Raman) or mass spectroscopy, and therefore was discounted for lack of usefulness to the standard biologist. But, with the novel researcher looking for any edge they can find to learn more about their system, new attention is being given to attributes where heavy element detection or accumulation is present in biological systems.
Mineralization and bioaccumulation of materials in tissues and systems is a perfect example of how EDS provides new insights into biological processes. Heavier elements like calcium, phosphorus, and potassium are accumulated and concentrated in easily detectable amounts in tissues leading to the formation of biominerals like kidney stones, sclerotic materials, and bone spurs. EDS provides a simple and clear method to visualize and quantify how these elements are distributed.
There are numerous examples in the literature of using nanoparticles from a host of different elements to understand cellular and biomechanistic behaviors better. From tumor growth studies using iron and copper nanoparticles to track the deposition of drugs within a cancer cell, to using zinc and iron nanoparticles to understand biomaterial scaffolding, to using silver and gold nanoparticles to understand the efficacy of erectile dysfunction drugs, nanoparticles allow for a targeted tracking of materials using EDS. 
Toxicological leaching of biological implants for dental and orthopedic research to novel biomaterials always require a toxicological study to ensure that the materials used do not leach or otherwise migrate during in vivo applications. EDS is a suitable tool to evaluate lifetime studies looking for the flow of titanium, nickel, iron, or other metallic elements during post-mortem analysis of implanted structures. In addition, environmental leaching of hazardous materials, which are accumulated in plant life, can also be measured via SEM EDS. The ability of different phenotypes of plants to absorb iron or manganese from the soil and concentrate it in the cellular structure can be measured effectively.
These are just a few examples of the numerous ways that SEM, STEM, and TEM-based EDS can be used to complement research in the life sciences. As we continue to see a blending of the materials and biological worlds, I look forward to seeing more examples of elemental analysis being used to further scientific discovery.
- Satoshi Hara, E. et al, Nanostructural analysis of distinct nucleation sites in pathological mineralization. RSC; Mater. Adv., 2021, 2, 4423.
- Moretti, E. et al (2013), In vitro effect of gold and silver nanoparticles on human spermatozoa. Andrologia, 45: 392-396. https://doi.org/10.1111/and.12028.
- 3. Gillet, C. et al, (2016) Subcellular localization of metal pools determined by TEM-EDS in embryo Arabiopsis thaliana mutants, EMC 2016.6740.