Technology and expertise that foster innovation

Robert Harris works on a microscope

By Liz Snyder

Leading-edge equipment and specialized support staff allow the Advanced Analysis Centre (AAC) to create an environment of discovery for researchers on and off the University of Guelph campus.

Housed in the Summerlee Science Complex and the MacNaughton Building, the AAC contains a wide array of state-of-the-art laboratories that house more than $40-million worth of scientific infrastructure.  Each lab has its own staff, including an academic lead and a technical specialist.

So chances are, if you have a physical or biological science research question, the AAC has the equipment and expertise to answer it. 

Prof. Glen Van Der Kraak, Chair of the AAC Management Committee says the breadth of expertise is one reason the AAC’s resources are so important. 

“The Centre provides access to high-end research infrastructure that allows people to address questions they can’t answer in their own labs,” he says. “We have equipment that enables questions where literally the sky is the limit.  We have posed questions about disease resistant bacteria and climate change -- from viruses to microbes to molecular level ecologies.”

It’s this diversity of research activities, combined with trained technicians and academic leaders that allows for cross-fertilization of information and innovation in research, says Debbie Chan, Manager of the Centre. 

“It’s not just access to equipment, it’s access to trained staff that can help with method development, data analysis and technical support. A researcher can come in and staff will suggest a technology or a lab that the researcher didn’t think to use,” she says.

For example, Prof. Alejandro Marangoni, Food Science, and his team are researching ways to use healthier fats in foods without changing taste or texture.  To do that, they needed to know how fat is structured. 

Using technology at the Molecular and Cellular Imaging Facility, and working with lab technician Bob Harris, Marangoni and his team have made an important new discovery – they’ve found the underlying structure of fat. 

“All fat crystals from milk fat to palm oil have the same underlying structure.  Knowing how fat is structured has changed our field,” he says. 

Marangoni says this ground-breaking discovery might not have happened, were it not for the Advanced Analysis Centre. 

“This work was only possible because we had access to that lab on the other side of the road,” he says.  “If you want to make discoveries that industry can use, that you can publish in high impact journals, you need access to advanced equipment and someone who knows how to use it,” he says.

Marangoni’s work is just one of over 500 projects the AAC was involved with in the last year alone. Another was led by Christopher Trobacher, a plant physiologist with NutriAg Ltd.. He contacted Angela Holliss at the AAC’s Genomics Facility when his company needed plant RNA analyzed for research involving gene expression. He says NutriAg looked around at other labs, and chose the AAC – its costs were comparable, staff was available and had the capacity to do the work. 

“We were pleased with the results and are repeat customers,” he says.

The Advanced Analysis Centre is funded through a combination of user fee income and the Government of Canada’s Research Support Fund.

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Research at the laboratories that form the AAC runs the gamut from viruses to microbes to molecular level ecologies – in plants and animals.  Here are some examples of current projects being conducted within these labs:

  • Examining the long-term effects of exposing the rainbow trout proteome to a single dose of radiation, to determine adaptive protective responses that may be passed down to subsequent generations of fish.
  • Examining the effects of different yeast strains used in the fermentation process on the aroma (volatile) profile of beer.
  • Investigating an interplay between structure, dynamics and function of membrane proteins, including potential drug targets in cancer and other diseases.Investigating gut flora in animals and humans infected with
  • C. difficile.
  • Investigating the effects of climate change on endpoints such as crop productivity and food web dynamics.Using light and electron microscopy techniques to help explain how pathogenic bacterial biofilms grow on human epithelial cells.

Within each of these facilities, staff supports a wide range of research:

  • The Genomics Facility offers services in Sanger sequencing, “Next Generation” sequencing, microarray and quantitative PCR.
  • The Mass Spectrometry Facility allows researchers to access cutting-edge equipment capable of identifying and quantifying small metabolites and large biomolecules.
  • The Phytotron, located on the top floor of the Summerlee Science Complex, provides unique institutional capabilities for growing plants under a variety of controlled environmental conditions.
  • The Molecular and Cellular Imaging Facility offers high-resolution imaging of biological and non-biological samples.  The facility hosts advanced light and confocal microscopy systems, as well as transmission electron microscopes equipped for cryogenic and sub-nanometer  resolution imaging.
  • The Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Centre is equipped with a series of NMR spectrometers for solution and solid phase analysis of molecules.  The centre addresses many questions about structure-function relationships in small molecules, polymers, biological membranes and proteins.
  • The X-ray Diffraction and Scattering Facility uses a variety of X-ray techniques to characterize the structure of advanced materials, such as bioproducts and nanoparticles.