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Ten years later, and still on the leading edge of environmental science

Andre and Myrna Simpson use Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometers to understand pollutants at a molecular level. This year is the 10th anniversary of using this technology at UTSC. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Ten years ago, Myrna Simpson and André Simpson placed their first soil sample in a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer.

In doing so, they were among the first people in the world to study, on a molecular level, how contaminants and toxins bind in soil.

“With environmental chemistry, there is so much that’s unknown,” says Myrna. “If we can understand how contaminants bind to soil on a molecular scale, we can figure out how to clean up contaminated sites.”

In 2004, the pair worked with UTSC and Bruker BioSpin, a German scientific instruments company, to create the Environmental NMR Centre, a facility dedicated to a pioneering mix of molecular chemistry and environmental science.

As they mark the Centre’s tenth anniversary, Myrna and André say their research has gone in directions they could not have predicted. Their unique combination of chemistry and environmental science allows them to measure how climate change affects the fundamental molecular composition of soil and water including in sensitive areas such as Canada’s Arctic.

Be it at an industrial site or a housing development, NMR technology lets them detect contaminants and see their effects in real-time. And they use their spectrometers to create precise understanding of which specific molecules are causing illness and death in organisms.

“We’re now looking at organism health, sediments and even in vivo experiments, where we put live organisms in the NMR,” says Myrna. In part, these research advances come from technological improvements. André and Myrna (who are married but have separate research programs) began with a single NMR spectrometer, but added a second in 2010 and recently, a third spectrometer, through a major donation from the Krembil Foundation, which is faster and provides higher resolution than their earlier instruments.

Today, they can watch as daphnia digest food, making and breaking molecular bonds—something that was impossible when they began in 2004. If the organisms then get sick or die, they have the data to identify the precise molecular culprits

An NMR spectrometer generates a powerful magnetic field. Atomic nuclei absorb and reemit this energy in unique patterns that reveal molecular fingerprints. NMR spectrometers are used in many research facilities, and the technology is commonly used for medical scans, but André and Myrna’s application of the technology is unique. They worked with Bruker BioSpin to customize NMRs expressly for environmental research. As far as they know, no other laboratory in the world can match the kind of research they undertake.

“We’re taking NMR out of its comfort zone,” says André. “We’re changing the technology to match the sample, rather than changing samples to match technology. In our lab, we can now for the first time look at all the bonds in a natural sample without changing it, including small living organisms.”

Their innovation has led to many governmental research partnerships as well as collaborations with other researchers around the world. At a 3,000-acre forest overseen by Harvard University, for instance, Myrna and colleagues in the United States study how to sequester carbon in earth: enriching soil while mitigating global warming.

“In one experiment, researchers at Harvard Forest doubled the plant litter going into the soil, hoping that would store more carbon,” says Myrna. “But after 20 years of extra carbon, it’s not working.”

Unfortunately the influx of plant carbon stimulates microbes in the soil, which metabolize and rerelease the carbon back into the atmosphere.

André and Myrna have the unique expertise and technology to identify—and possibly mitigate—the specific molecular mechanisms that trigger changes in microbial activity.

A decade on, André and Myrna are still inventing a new way of engaging with environmental science. With applications steadily emerging—from real-time monitoring at wastewater treatment plants, to monitoring how climate change is affecting the molecular makeup of Canada’s permafrost—they have no shortage of research possibilities.

© University of Toronto Scarborough