Life Sciences

What Kind of Leaves Are These?

Dr. Bruce Scruggs, XRF Product Manager, EDAX

This year is shaping up to be an interesting year for travel. Five countries and counting, and I’m not even including a stopover in Texas. The last trip was to Brazil. Beautiful country. But, there’s a reason you see snack and beverage vendors roaming the side of the highways in Rio and Sao Paulo..…

I started out with a micro-XRF workshop at the Center for Mineral Technology at the Federal University at Rio de Janeiro. We were working out of the Gemological Research Laboratory with Dr. Jurgen Schnellrath. At the end of the technical presentations, we analyzed some various pieces of jewelry that participants from the workshop brought. I must admit that this makes me a bit nervous to analyze anything with unforeseen sentimental value and I refuse to analyze engagement and wedding rings. A large pair of blue sapphire earrings turned out to be glass. (Purchased at a garage sale at a garage sale price. So, no big surprise …) Another smaller set of blue sapphire earrings were found to be natural sapphires accompanied by a sigh of relief from the owner. (They came from a reputable jewelry shop with a reputable jewelry shop price.)

Gold leaf “Gold leaf'” embedded in resin

At the end, we analyzed what was termed “gold leaf” jewelry, i.e. a ring and a pair of earrings. The style of these pieces was thin gold leaf foil embedded in resin. The owner was one of the younger students in the lab and she had purchased the jewelry herself from a relatively well-known designer’s collection. The goal was to measure for the presence of gold. Since the gold leaf was embedded in resin, XRF was the ideal tool to measure the pieces non-destructively. The jewelry also had some rather odd topography at times given the surrounding resin, but the Orbis had no problem to target the gold leaf given the co-axial geometry of the exciting X-ray and video imaging. I would have liked to have used the excuse that we couldn’t target the sample accurately because of XRF system geometry. There was no gold. Copper / Zinc alloy. That was it. She had paid about $30 US for the earrings and she said she felt cheated. I kept thinking “Cheated? Maybe … live a little, wait until you buy a house!” Later, I was searching the internet looking for a technical definition for “gold leaf”. I knew I was onto something when I found a webpage that said that gold leaf was “traditionally” 22K gold thin foil used for gilding. The page later described modern Copper/Zinc alloy metal leaf “… offering the same rich look of gold leaf, but at a fraction of the price….” Apparently, this metal leaf can be found at art stores. Who knew?

From there, we went on to the state of Sao Paulo and did a workshop at the Center for Nuclear Energy in Agriculture at the University of Sao Paulo. During the workshop, some of the students gave presentations on their work. I saw a very interesting experimental setup with live plants being measured in the Orbis. The plant’s roots were placed in a water bath doped with various forms of minerals or fertilizers. The whole plant, roots, stem, leaves, was then inserted into the Orbis and the stem was measured to monitor the uptake time for the relevant components in the bath. The plants could be moved in and out of the chamber to monitor the uptake over extended periods of time and over various portions of the plant.

On the way to the Sao Paulo airport, I had the pleasure of sitting in the longest traffic jam I have ever endured with the monotony being broken by roaming snack and beverage vendors. It was quite the sight to watch the peanut vendors carrying propane fueled peanut warmers traversing the lane dividers on the highway with the occasional motorcycle speeding between the cars along the same lane dividers.
Tip for next time … buy the Brazilian produced chocolate before going to the airport. The selection at the airport is rather limited and you never know when you may be having more fun than humans should be allowed to have watching motorcycles and peanut hawkers.

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.