X-rays, Molecules, Life and Death
Humans are exposed on a daily basis to an incredibly complex mixture of chemical compounds. Many of these contain metals and other heavy elements which are either essential to health or poisonous. In both cases, the molecular nature of the compound is critical to conferring beneficial or toxic properties and thus must be understood. Mercury, for example, presents significant environmental hazards in many parts of the world, yet the molecular basis for its toxicity remains largely unknown. As holder of the Canada Research Chair in X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy, Dr. Graham George is making extensive use of the high intensity X-ray beams produced by the Canadian Light Source-Canada's first synchrotron- to characterize the molecular nature of metals and heavy elements in living systems. He is focusing on the functional and toxic roles of particular elements, such as sulfur, molybdenum and mercury. X-ray absorption spectroscopy provides a unique insight into molecular identity. Chemical species can be identified in complex mixtures and details of molecular structure can be determined if the element of interest is present in essentially a single form. By using this technology to delve into the molecular biochemistry of compounds containing metals and other heavy elements, Dr. George will advance our understanding of both molecular toxicology and biological function. This knowledge may in turn lead to new treatments for heavy metal poisoning, new remediation strategies and a better understanding of the role played by metals and heavy elements in health.