Backgrounder: UVic researchers receiving CFI grants

Medical Sciences, Engineering

Heather Buckley, civil engineer

Drinking-water advisories can be common in mining-impacted communities, as water can easily be contaminated by arsenic and metals that leach out of rock and soil disturbed in the mining process. But with no simple, quick or low-cost method for testing drinking water, those communities can end up consuming contaminated water for weeks or even months before lab results come back.

Buckley’s research project aims to develop a test strip along the lines of those used for glucose monitoring, capable of quickly identifying the most common contaminants from mining that are toxic to human health. With a goal of keeping the overall price of each test strip to around a dollar or two, Buckley’s work not only envisages giving communities the power to test their water supply whenever they choose to and get immediate results but allows them to gather and monitor the data themselves to advocate for change or intervention.

Arsenic in particular is a concern in BC’s north, the result of legacy gold and uranium mining. Arsenic occurs naturally in the ground and can be disturbed during rock-crushing processes, eventually ending up as a fine dusting of arsenic across the landscape. That dust then makes its way into the water supply through precipitation and snow melt. Mercury, chromium, cadmium and lead are all well-recognized health hazards from mining processes that also affect drinking water.

Buckley’s project will build on existing research around molecules specifically designed to capture metals. The test strips will use such molecules to create a “stickiness” on the test strip for the most problematic metals, says the civil engineer.

A secondary aspect of her research is to use this same stickiness to create a method of extracting valuable metals from mine tailings to return additional profits to the mining companies. In time, that process could reduce the amount of mining that is necessary, says Buckley, and lead to new techniques that don’t require the use of toxic metals such as mercury.

Leigh Anne Swayne, cell biologist

The confocal microscope that Leigh Anne Swayne’s lab acquired through a previous CFI grant in 2013 has ended up an integral tool for much of the foundational science that goes on in the lab. Confocal microscopy is an optical imaging technique that increases resolution and contrast by blocking out-of-focus areas. Among its many capabilities, the microscope allows researchers to examine molecules and subcellular structures in lateral slices known as optical sections—much like a CT scan.

This most recent CFI grant will fund an upgrade to the microscope that will enhance its capabilities even more. Researchers will be able to see structures smaller than half a micron in length, and work with even higher resolutions, called super-resolution imaging. That’s important in research work that studies the neurons of the brain, the information transmitting cells whose role is so vital to all the functions of the body and mind. This super-resolution capacity will help to locate the minuscule proteins that are the workhorses of the neurons and one of the primary focuses of Swayne’s work.

“Where they are tells us a lot about their function, so knowing their location is really important,” notes Swayne.

Some of the proteins Swayne is interested in are found in little protrusions known as dendritic spines, where information is received from other neurons. The tiny antennae-like structures are only one to three microns long. Research has linked these dendritic spines to neuro-developmental conditions such as autism, and a microscope that’s able to provide a clear image of their structure opens the door to greater understanding of how such conditions occur.

The laser-scanning confocal microscope also lets Swayne capture cellular processes at high speeds, on a scale of tens of milliseconds. That allows her research team to study live processes that were impossible to see before such technological advancements, such as watching the growth on a cell of minuscule protrusions known as neurites.

“Each new advance in technology lets us see things from a new perspective,” says Swayne. “This microscope will change what we can do.”

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Keywords: funding, research, water, brain, biomedical, Canada Foundation for Innovation, science, civil engineering, mining, autism

People: Heather Buckley, Leigh Anne Swayne

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