Research machines probe nature
for medical, technological insights

by Catherine Foster

Argonne National Laboratory performs basic scientific research in two ways.

First, like the instruments in an orchestra, research disciplines from astrophysics to materials science are joined in a kind of scientific harmony at Argonne. This variety of research disciplines provides the expertise scientists need to probe nature’s secrets and to contribute to the nation’s science and technology knowledge base.

Second, for its own use and that of scientists from around the globe Argonne designs, builds and operates unique research facilities. Researchers come from industry, universities and other research laboratories to use these machines which are among the best in the world. Resulting experiments in biology, chemistry, geology and physics may lead to discoveries that can enhance knowledge and lead to safer, healthier lives.

Advanced Photon Source

The 1,104-meter-circumference storage ring of the APS stores the nation's most brilliant X-ray beams for materials science research. Argonne National Laboratory photo.

Valuable APS findings

Developing practical new materials is one of the important drivers of an expanding international economy. The Advanced Photon Source (APS) was designed and built by Argonne and provides researchers with the nation’s most brilliant X-rays for materials science research.

At the APS, a highly complex machine accelerates and stores a beam of subatomic particles that is the source of APS X-ray beams. This machine includes a 1,104-meter-circumference storage ring. APS technical design and operational goals focus on providing scientists with high-quality X-ray beams at a high rate of reliability. Today’s beam is ten times more brilliant than the original specifications, and the particle beam’s vertical stability is three times better than the design goal.

The APS has been the site of new discoveries in medicine, agriculture and environmental science.

For example, scientists have focused those brilliant X-ray beams onto corn and soybean roots, and have been rewarded with valuable insights into improving agricultural crops, and cleaning up contaminated environments.

Approximately 90 percent of the world’s vascular plants — those with a specialized conducting system to carry nutrients — commonly have symbiotic associations with fungi. The majority of all economic agricultural crops fall in this category, so how the plants relate to the fungi — whether that association benefits or harms the plant — is important for reducing food production costs.

The plants are believed to benefit the fungi by providing carbohydrates to the fungi’s diet. The fungi reciprocate by increasing the plant’s ability to take up nutrients. In nutrient-poor soils, the fungi can improve the plant’s absorption of phosphorus, copper, zinc, iron and other useful materials; in nutrient-rich or heavily contaminated soils, the fungi can control high metal concentrations, which are potentially harmful, by regulating the amount of those materials the plant absorbs.

The researchers now want to determine how the fungi accomplish that control, whether by absorbing the excess materials themselves or simply blocking them from uptake by the plant. The answer may open new approaches to environmental cleaning of contaminated soil.

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