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U of T lab a Canadian first for environmental science


Technology reveals ’molecular map’ of organic matter

A new facility unveiled today at U of T at Scarborough provides an unprecedented view of the molecular secrets found in organic matter-shedding new light on fields such as climate change, environmental contamination and forensic science.

The Environmental Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Centre is the first of its kind in Canada dedicated to research in environmental science. Husband-and-wife researchers Myrna Simpson, a U of T assistant professor of environmental chemistry, and Andre Simpson, a UTSC assistant professor of chemistry and the new facility’s director of NMR research, will supervise activities at the $2.47-million facility. Bruker BioSpin Canada donated the facility’s instrumentation-a gift-in-kind worth $1.57 million-while the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Ontario Innovation Trust and U of T each provided $300,000.

The lab’s specially designed instrument (the NMR spectrometer) and innovative technology allows researchers to analyse organic matter-such as that found in soil, water, leaves and air-at the molecular level. Once a sample is analysed, the instrument produces a computerized "molecular map" of the compounds present in the substance. Researchers are compiling a database of compounds that have already been analysed to ease subsequent identification of samples.

"Any research is limited by the quality of the research tools," says Myrna Simpson. "By having access to this unbelievable instrumentation, we’re going to be able to make leaps and bounds in our understanding of environmental processes. We’ll be able to solve a lot of fundamental problems." The instrument can also be used to scan a sample on multiple occasions over a period of time, providing a "time-lapse" glimpse of decomposition, she adds.

Professor Kwong-loi Shun, vice-president and principal of UTSC, says the Environmental NMR centre will allow UTSC to make dramatic strides as a leading centre for environmental research in Canada and around the world. "It is wonderful to see excellence in teaching, learning and research thriving here at UTSC," says Shun. The NMR facility is already attracting collaborators, including other Canadian scientists.

Installation of the NMR spectrometer began in October 2003 and was completed in March with the assistance of one of Bruker BioSpin’s engineers who travelled from Germany to help with assembly of the technology.

"Bruker BioSpin is very proud to support the innovative research programs of Professors Andre and Myrna Simpson," says Dr. Henry Stronks, executive vice-president of Bruker BioSpin Canada. "University-based research will play a critical role as Canada continues to move toward a knowledge-based economy and Bruker BioSpin is excited to be a partner with the University of Toronto and Andre and Myrna Simpson as we work together to pioneer new magnetic resonance methodologies for the analysis of soil and organic matter. Congratulations to the University of Toronto and everyone involved for helping to make this world class laboratory a reality."

"Today’s opening of the Environmental Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Centre is a powerful example of what can be achieved through partnerships," says Carmen Charette, interim president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. "The investment we are celebrating today will strengthen Canada’s capacity to effectively compete locally, nationally and internationally in this important area of research."

Nicolle Wahl | U of T
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