Advanced imaging reveals unusual, unseen patterns in seabird feathers

The identification of essential chemical elements in the feathers of long-distance migratory seabirds using advanced X-ray imaging techniques promises new insights into the underlying physiological processes behind feather growth.

In research published in Nature Scientific Reports, a team of investigators led by ANSTO biologist Nicholas Howell and Prof Richard Banati provided evidence of previously unseen spatial patterns in the distribution of metals that do not appear to be linked to physical characteristics in the feathers.

Because the patterns are not linked to pigmentation, thickness or other structural characteristics in the feathers, the authors suggest another unidentified mechanism may be at work.

“Our collaboration has produced some remarkable depictions of the feathers that let us see into complex and pattern-forming, biochemical processes in cells,” said Prof Banati.

High resolution images collected using the X-ray fluorescence microprobe and Maia spectroscopic detector at the Australian Synchrotron, revealed independent distribution of zinc, calcium, bromine, copper and iron.

In this investigation, the technique was applied to the whole feather, and required no subsampling or extraction procedures  in order to accurately identify elements.

 “Using this powerful instrument and Maia detector, David Paterson and Daryl Howard were able to scan samples that were several centimetres in length at micron resolution,” said Howell.

X-ray fluorescence microscopy allows you to view hard biological structures in their natural state. The detector system speeds up the scanning of the sample in real time and delivers data at unprecedented resolution.

The images, which have previously unachieved sensitivity and resolution, provide a distribution map of a range of chemical elements in the feather.

Understanding the development of bird feathers is important for understanding the evolution of birds, formation of organs, tissue regeneration and the health status of individual animals.

The findings also have significant potential application more broadly in developmental biology.

“The same basic biochemical mechanisms that allow feathers to develop in birds are at work in other animals and humans, “said Howell.

For example, the identification of a distinct, repetitious pattern in the concentration of zinc in all samples was of particular interest.

Zinc is an essential element in birds for growth, the formation of enzymes, the development of the skeleton and a range of physiological functions.

These zinc bands resembled but were not related to distinct growth bands.

The exact mechanism that leads to the regular deposits of zinc is unknown but the scientists  noticed that the number of zinc bands appears to be the same as the number of days the feather grows, e.g. the duration of the moulting period.

“We do not have entirely accurate data on the rate of feather growth in a migratory seabird, which needs to be observed under conditions of the animal’s natural life-cycle,” said Howell.

“Nonetheless, such highly regular, biological patterns hold important information , because similar to tree rings , they are a natural time stamp that records events during the growth of these patterns.” said Howell.

Therefore, the patterns in the feathers may be useful in assessing the bird’s health and nutritional status retrospectively, in the way that tree rings indicate  past environmental events, such as droughts and floods.

The feathers came from three species of migratory shearwaters, birds that are known to travel over 60,000 kilometres per year on their migration to breeding areas.

Mr Howell said none of the work would have been possible without the painstaking field work in remote locations.

Single breast and wing feathers from the fleshfooted, streaked and short-tailed shearwater were collected on Lord Howe Island, several Japanese islands and Bundeena Beach (NSW) under the direction of co-author Dr Jennifer Lavers of the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania.

 “It is very difficult to image and measure metals in biological samples, but it is something we can do with a variety of techniques at ANSTO using X-rays, neutrons and isotopes,” said Howell.

Last year, a similar approach was used to detect and measure strontium in the vertebrae of sharks.

The study revealed that the strontium correlated with the age of the individual and allowed age to be determined without reference to growth bands.

 

Infrared (IR) imaging technology at the Australian Synchrotron, developed specifically for carbon fibre analysis, has contributed to a better understanding of chemical changes that affect structure in the production of high-performance carbon fibres using a precursor material.

A research collaboration led by Carbon Nexus, a global carbon fibre research facility at Deakin UniversitySwinburne University of Technology and members of the Infrared Microspectroscopy team at the Australian Synchrotron, has just published a paper in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A, that identified and helped to explain important structural changes that occur during the production of carbon fibres.

The research was undertaken to elucidate the exact chemical transformation occurring during the heat treatment of polyacrylonitrile (PAN), which produced structural changes.

Left to right: Nishar Hameed, Maxime Maghe and Srinivas Nunna on the Australian Synchrotron Infrared Spectroscopy beamline.

The majority of commercial carbon fibres are manufactured from PAN but there has been an imperfection that occurred during production that affected its material properties. 

Because the conversion of PAN to carbon fibre did not occur evenly across the fibre, it resulted in a skin-core structure. 

Manufacturers want to prevent the formation of the skin-core structure in order to enhance the strength of the fibres.

The research lead by Dr Nishar Hameed provides the first quantitative definition on the chemical structure development along the radial direction of PAN fibres using high-resolution IR imaging. 

“Although it has been more than half a century that carbon fibres were first developed, the exact chemical transformations and the actual structure development during heat treatment is still unknown”. 

“The most significant scientific outcome of this study is that the critical chemical reactions for structure development were found to be occurring at a faster rate in the core of the fibre during heating, thus disrupting the more than 50-year-old belief that this reaction occurs at the periphery of the fibre due to direct heat.”

A multitude of experimental techniques including IR spectroscopy confirmed that structural differences evolved along the radial direction of the fibres, which produced the imperfection.

The difference between skin and core in stabilised fibres evolved from differences in the cross linking mechanism of molecular chains from the skin to the core. 

The information could potentially help manufacturers improve the production process and lead to better fibres.

“Using a technique called Attenuated Total Reflection (ATR) to focus the synchrotron beam, the IR beamline allowed the research team to acquire images across individual fibres, to see where carbon-carbon triple bonds in the PAN were being converted to double bonds,” said Dr Mark Tobin, Principal Scientist, IR, at the Australian Synchrotron, who is a co-author with Dr Pimm Vongsvivut and Dr Keith Bambery.

“Previous IR studies have been conducted on fibre bundles and powdered fibres, while we were able to analyse the cross section of single filaments.” 

To acquire detailed images of the fibres, which are only 12 microns across, the IR team modified the beamline for the experiment using a highly polished germanium crystal to focus the IR beam onto the fibres.

Lead author Srinivas Nunna received a post graduate research award from the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (AINSE) to support the study. 

Australians with cancer will be the first to benefit from the multi-million dollar Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) Detector launched at the Australian Synchrotron, fast-tracking cancer research by harnessing light a million times brighter than the sun.

Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Senator the Hon. Arthur Sinodinos, unveiled the ACRF Detector, which is akin to a turbocharged camera, and will take images at a speed and accuracy currently not possible at any other Australian research facility.

The detector will enable researchers, including those working in cancer, to more than double their outputs, gaining more answers at a faster rate.

Currently, more than 60 per cent of all the research conducted on the Synchrotron’s Micro Crystallography (MX2) beamline is dedicated to cancer research, helping scientists to understand and develop new drug targets and refine treatments for a disease that is the leading cause of death around the globe.

Top: Dr Tom Caradoc-Davies, Principal Scientist - MX beamline, explains the ACRF Detector to Australian Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Senator the Hon. Arthur Sinodinos with Lucy Jones and Professor Charlie Bond. 
Bottom left: Professor Charlie Bond and Lucy Jones in discussion with Australian Synchrotron Director, Professor Andrew Peele. 
Bottom right: Chairman of the ACRF Board, Tom Dery presents the cheque to ANSTO CEO, Dr Adi Paterson.  


ACRF CEO, Professor Ian Brown, said ACRF and its supporters are proud to have provided the $2 million grant that facilitated the purchase of the ACRF Detector.

“The ACRF Detector is a vital, core piece of equipment for cancer and medical research in Australia, and one that will be used by cancer researchers from all institutes, hospitals and universities,” said Professor Brown.

“It shows the three-dimensional structure of proteins, which do most of the work in cells, identifying opportunities to neutralise those involved in cancer and promoting those that may protect us from cancer.”

The Synchrotron is operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. Australian Synchrotron Director, Professor Andrew Peele, said the leaps that will be enabled by the new detector will more than double the facility’s capacity to collect data, leading to more targeted and effective treatments and, ultimately, improved patient outcomes.

“This new capability will take a beamline that was previously at full capacity – booked for use at all available hours of the day – and find it an extra gear, so it can deliver more research, and arm researchers with clear representations of protein structures,” said Professor Peele.

“There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered in the world of cancer research, and by partnering with ACRF and speeding up the throughput of important research, we are bringing more solutions closer than ever before.

“We’re essentially shifting from dial-up internet to high-speed broadband, putting our foot on the accelerator of cancer research technology, providing faster protein analysis to turbocharge cancer research and facilitate significant discoveries.”

Senator Sinodinos said the new ACRF Detector is a great example of how collaboration between research facilities, not-for-profits and government can improve outcomes for the Australian community.

“This investment in Australian research and technology has the potential to increase and quicken the rate at which research turns into practical applications for patients and the community,” Senator Sinodinos said.

“High quality research, collaboration and smart investment are needed to ensure that new research and knowledge are supported, and I am thrilled to be here today to witness exactly that, and officially reveal the ACRF detector.”

Attending the launch of the ACRF Detector with Minister Sinodinos was researcher and protein crystallographer from the University of Western Australia, Professor Charlie Bond, who has utilised the MX2 beamline for extensive protein analysis, including research into the childhood cancer neuroblastoma.

They were also joined by Lucy Jones, who is focused on driving change in survival rates through increased research into neuroblastoma, having lost her daughter Sienna to the illness in 2010.

“Losing a child to neuroblastoma has driven me to do all I can to support research in finding an effective treatment for this insidious disease and other childhood cancers, made all the more challenging due to the high cost of drug development and the rarity of most childhood cancers,” Ms Jones said.

"We must do everything we can to help researchers such as Professor Bond, and innovative technologies such as this, to help make the whole research process more efficient by reducing costs and time to clearly benefit the research of childhood cancers and other diseases, shortening the time between lab discoveries and clinical testing of new drugs,” she said.

Neuroblastoma occurs most commonly in infants and children under five years of age. It is cancer made up of cells that are found in nerve tissues called neuroblasts, commonly found in adrenal glands and along tissues around the spinal cord in the neck, chest, abdomen and pelvis.

The ACRF Detector was made possible by a $2 million grant from the ACRF, and additional contributions from Monash University, CSIRO, La Trobe University, NZ Synchrotron Group, the University of Western Australia, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland, the University of Sydney, the University of Wollongong, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, the University of Adelaide, Australian National University and ANSTO.

Read more:

ACRF Detector fact sheet

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