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New equipment opens up ‘mass’ive possibilities

Mass spectrometer

Mass spectrometer

The Boyce Thompson Institute starts off 2015 with a generous gift from the Triad Foundation and researchers are about to open their most exciting present: a high-resolution mass spectrometer.

The instrument, which can determine the chemical formula – and possibly even the structure – of unknown molecules, isn’t on everyone’s wish list. But scientists at BTI have waited six years for this new addition. Associate Professor Frank Schroeder calls it a “dream come true.” Its acquisition opens up new research capabilities for scientists at BTI and the Cornell University campus.

“This new generation of high-resolution mass spectrometry will enable biologists to identify small molecules much more quickly than previously,” said Schroeder. “Therefore, this instrument and its purchase will enable biology-oriented labs at BTI and on campus to integrate metabolomics and small molecule research into their programs for the first time.”

Though the BTI already has a well-equipped Mass Spectrometry Facility, the new instrument will detect the masses of molecules with greater sensitivity and accuracy, which is essential for determining a compound’s molecular formula.

“There is no instrument like this anywhere on campus,” said Meena Haribal, manager of the BTI’s existing facility.

Existing mass spectrometer at BTI facility

Existing mass spectrometer at BTI facility

The new mass spectrometer is a “game changer” for research in comparative metabolomics said Schroeder. Research in his lab uses the laboratory roundworm, C. elegans, as a model system for the study of human aging. This project relies on the comparative analysis of hundreds or thousands of metabolites in roundworms that carry different mutations, looking for specific compounds that affect lifespan. The new instrument will enable the lab to spend more time and resources on not just identifying these compounds but in understanding how they control aging in C. elegans, and possibly in humans.

The new mass spectrometer will be instrumental to the work of several other BTI project leaders. Georg Jander’s lab will use the technology to identify new types of chemical defenses that plants generate to ward off insect attacks. Its sensitivity will allow them to identify miniscule levels of plant metabolites from samples as small as the amount of sap sucked into an aphid’s mouthparts. Jim Giovannoni’s lab will analyze metabolites from tomatoes using the instrument, to better understand genes that affect the nutritional value of the fruit.

“In the past we have done such analyses via collaborations with colleagues outside the Institute. This will give us in-house access,” said Giovannoni.

New Mass Spectrometer

Josh Baccile, Schroeder Lab, is seated at BTI’s current mass spectrometer. Black counter in foreground shows where the new Mass Spectrometer will be located

Project Leader Michelle Cilia will also appreciate having a high-resolution mass spectrometer on site so that she can try out new ideas and get hands-on training for her students and post-docs. She will use the instrument to study the proteins integral to the spread of insect-borne pathogens.

BTI acquired the new mass spectrometer by using a portion of the funds from a generous 1.4 million dollar grant from the Triad Foundation. The four-year award came about through the concerted efforts of Vice President for Communications and Development Bridget Rigas and former Vice President for Research Karen Kindle. Project Leaders from BTI and Cornell also contributed funds from their own budgets toward the purchase of the new instrument.

“We are delighted to assist BTI in acquiring this state of the art research tool,” said Triad President and Chairman Roy H. Park Jr. “Having such an instrument on the campus can only enhance broad new research efforts for BTI scientists and Cornell University.”

The high-resolution mass spectrometer will arrive in February 2015 and researchers hope it will be operational by the end of that month. “We already have user-requests from all over campus,” said Schroeder. “People are excited about this capability becoming available at BTI.”

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