Breakthroughs Aided by Mass Spec Technology in 2017

Earth in SpaceWe’re often focused on the more nitty-gritty side of mass spec technology and lab safety—but every once in a while, we like to look back and see just how far and wide the impacts of mass spec technology is reaching. It’s astonishing the different ways society has benefitted from the work being done in labs like yours around the world.

As the year draws to a close, we want to highlight these (really neat) scientific breakthroughs.

Asteroid Metals Vanquish Cancer Cells

We begin with work that has its roots in space. Iridium is a metal that is rarely found on earth, but is commonly found in meteorites—perhaps including an asteroid that hit the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago, sparking a series of events that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Today, researchers are wielding iridium with other extinctions in mind: cancer cells. By combining iridium with organic materials and activating the compound with red laser light, the compound transformed oxygen within cancer cells into singlet oxygen, which poisoned the cancer cells.

In the research, conducted by both Chinese and UK researchers, ultra-high-resolution mass spec technology was used to isolate the specific proteins being affected by the compound, and confirm that healthy cells were not adversely affected.

Making Testing as Easy as Breathing

Recent Swedish research has determined that fluids which line human airways can be effectively collected and analyzed through exhaled breath. In the past, analyzing exhaled particles has been difficult because the particle samples are so small. Instead, bodily fluids were collected through blood or urine samples, a much more invasive technique. In this study, liquid chromatography-mass spec technology was used to analyze collected samples. LC-MS was also employed to determine the effectiveness of different breathing patterns on the collection of samples. This research will likely impact a variety of fields that can analyze biomarkers. These include drug testing, the presence and spread of both lung and systemic diseases, and the analysis of various airborne contaminants.

Dating Early Advances in Human Agriculture

In addition to addressing modern challenges, mass spec technology is assisting researchers in understanding some of the earliest technological breakthroughs in human history. Researchers from Israel and Denmark have excavated and analyzed biological remains found at some of the earliest Natufian cultural sites in the Middle East. Natufians were early builders of permanent, rather than nomadic, homes and tended to edible plants. Using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, or AMS, researchers were able to accurately date over twenty different samples of charred plant remains. AMS mass spec technology allows single atoms to be carbon-14 dated, which is accurate to within plus or minus 50 years. The richness of the cache of plant relics allowed researchers to choose short-lived plant parts—seeds and twigs—for carbon dating, thus making the results of this mass spec technology to be focused even more narrowly.

The impact of the AMS data is profound, because it suggests that permanent settlements and early agriculture arose almost simultaneously in different places around the Middle East. This means that there were multiple innovators in different settlements, coming to similar conclusions about the efficiency of setting up house in a single location.

Widespread Innovation

Clearly innovation is inherent in human nature. Innovators around the globe are making use of mass spec technology to transform both our understanding of our ancestors and our ability to analyze and manipulate the world around us. We are grateful to have a role to play in supporting lab safety and the lab equipment used in these and other studies, and look forward to seeing what researchers like you will innovate in 2018.