Life Sciences

XRF: Old Tech Adapting to New Times

Andrew Lee, Senior Applications Engineer, EDAX

X-rays were only discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895, but by the early 1900’s, research into X-rays was so prolific that half the Nobel Prizes in physics between 1914 to 1924 were awarded in this relatively new field. These discoveries set the stage for 1925, when the first sample was irradiated with X-rays. We’ve immortalized these early founders by naming formulas and coefficients after them. Names like Roentgen and Moseley seem to harken back to a completely different era of science. But here we are today a century later, still using and teaching those very same principles and formulas when we talk about XRF. This is because the underlying physics has not really changed much, and yet, XRF remains as relevant today as it ever was. You can’t say that for something like telephone technology.

XRF has traditionally been used for bulk elemental analysis, associated with large collimators, and pressed pellet samples. For many decades, these commercial units were not the most sophisticated instruments (although Apollo 15 and 16 in 1971 and 1972 included bulk XRF units). Modern hardware and software innovations to the core technique have allowed XRF to adapt to its surroundings in a way, becoming a useful instrument in many applications where XRF previously had little to offer. Micro-XRF was born this way, combining the original principles with newer hardware and software advancements. In fact, micro-XRF is included on the new NASA rover, scheduled for launch to Mars in 2020.

Biological/life sciences is one of those fields where possibilities are now opening as XRF technology progresses. A great example that comes to mind for both professional and personal reasons is the study of neurodegenerative diseases. Many such diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), exhibit an imbalance in metal ions such as Cu, Fe, and Zn in the human body. While healthy cells maintain “metal homeostasis”, individuals with these neurodegenerative diseases cannot properly regulate, which leads to toxic reactive oxygen species. For example, reduced Fe and Cu levels can catalyze the production of hydroxyl radicals which lead to damaged DNA and cell death. Imaging the distribution of biological metals in non-homogenized tissue samples is critical in understanding the role of these metals, and hopefully finding a cure. The common language between the people who studied physics versus the people who studied brain diseases? Trace metal distribution!

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to analyze a few slices of diseased human tissue in the EDAX Orbis micro-XRF (Figure 1 and 2), working towards proving this concept. Although the results were not conclusive either way, it was still very interesting to be able to detect and see the distribution of trace Cu near the bottom edge of the tissue sample. XRF provided unique advantages to the analysis process, and provided the necessary elemental sensitivity while maintaining high spatial resolution. This potential has since been recognized by other life science applications, such as mapping nutrient intake in plant leaves or seed coatings.

Figure 1. Stitched montage video image of the diseased human tissue slice, with mapped area highlighted in red. Total sample width ~25 mm.

Figure 1. Stitched montage video image of the diseased human tissue slice, with mapped area highlighted in red. Total sample width ~25 mm.

Figure 2. Overlaid element maps: Potassium{K(K) in green} and Copper {Cu(K) in yellow} from mapped area in Figure 1, showing a clear area of higher Cu concentration. Total mapped width ~7.6 mm.

Figure 2. Overlaid element maps: Potassium{K(K) in green} and Copper {Cu(K) in yellow} from mapped area in Figure 1, showing a clear area of higher Cu concentration. Total mapped width ~7.6 mm.

Sometimes, the application may not be obvious, or it may seem completely unrelated. But with a little digging, common ground can be found between the analysis goal and what the instrument can do. And if the technology continues to develop, there seems to be no limit to where XRF can be applied, whether it be outwards into space, or inwards into the human biology.