Brighter than the sun

Brighter than the sun

A world-class facility in Saskatoon promises to light up the lives of Canadian researchers
June 1, 2003

Deep in the heart of the Canadian Prairies, researchers are preparing to harness the energy of a mammoth new light source that's millions of times brighter than the sun.

In a building the size of a football field at the University of Saskatchewan, researchers are putting the final touches on one of the largest scientific projects ever undertaken in Canada. The Canadian Light Source (CLS) is Canada's first synchrotron, a powerful instrument that will produce a focused light of mind-boggling brightness and intensity, and will propel Canada into the big leagues of synchrotron research. "It's state-of-the-art," says Bill Thomlinson, the Executive Director of the Canadian Light Source. "We'll be among the leaders in the world with this technology."

But what's even more impressive is what researchers will actually be able to accomplish using the light. Once it's operating in Saskatoon in early 2004, the new $174-million facility will allow researchers from across Canada to conduct research that will enable them to determine the structure of matter and to better understand physical, chemical, geological, and biological processes. "A synchrotron acts like a giant microscope," says Thomlinson. "It generates intense beams of light and will help scientists greatly in understanding the nature and structure of molecules and materials."

Although the CLS' job description sounds simple—shine a powerful light on very small things to see them more clearly—the reality is about as rich and complex as it gets. The research at the facility has the potential to produce meaningful and far-reaching results. In fact, researchers plan to use the synchrotron—and its high-intensity source of infrared, visible, ultraviolet, and x-ray light—to examine chemical reactions and the intricate structure of materials (such as proteins) at the atomic level. The data they gather will pave the way for a potentially endless list of applications including new drugs, more powerful computer chips, better engine lubricants, more effective medical imaging, and the development of less hazardous materials. All that from something that looks like a giant doughnut.

Even though the CLS facility will be big, it won't be unwieldy. Researchers will be able to divide the main light source into "hutches" known as "beam-line laboratories." Intense beams of light will be transferred from the main ring into these hutches to increase the number of researchers and projects that will benefit from the light. In these labs, up to 2,000 researchers each year will be able to perform the chemical analyses and experiments that will advance basic science and generate groundbreaking discoveries.

Until now, public and private-sector researchers in Canada have had to travel to use synchrotrons in other countries. The new CLS will enable researchers to stay at home-generating more economic benefits for Canada. It will also attract graduate students and lure expatriates back home, as well as advance Canada's competitive edge to recruit researchers from abroad. So far, the CLS has attracted more than 20 new researchers and staff to the University of Saskatchewan, including Thomlinson, an American who was previously head of the medical research group at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. "The dedication to this national innovation agenda here is as exciting and as dramatic as you will find anywhere in Canada," he says.


In his laboratory at the University of Saskatchewan, Louis Delbaere hopes to solve a critical mystery for diabetics.

The biochemist is growing tiny protein crystals that may one day help to answer a question that affects diabetics the world over: How do you turn on and off the proteins that influence glucose production? Delbaere believes a new facility at the university is the key to finding an answer and to making a dramatic change in the way we fight this increasingly prevalent disease.

Delbaere is getting ready to use the powerful new Canadian Light Source (CLS), a facility that will help him probe the structure of proteins with greater precision and accuracy. The CLS, which generates a focused light millions of times brighter than the sun, will enable Delbaere to speed up his existing research because the synchrotron will produce x-rays millions of times brighter and clearer than those produced by existing machinery.

Almost all the receptors in the body for medical drugs are on proteins. As a result, Delbaere plans to examine the structure of proteins to try to determine the best receptors for any new medication. If a particular protein is involved in a critical biological function, binding certain drugs to its receptor sites can get it to turn on or turn off that function. The protein involved in producing glucose, for example, is too active in diabetics, so it produces too much sugar in their bodies.

Before the CLS, Delbaere spent years trying to grow protein crystals that were a quarter of a millimeter in size-large enough so he could use his in-house equipment to analyze them. Using the synchrotron, Delbaere will now be able to examine much smaller crystals—those .05 of a millimeter in diameter. He can grow them within two to three weeks. "It speeds things up and you get more accurate data," he says.

Having the CLS in Saskatchewan means Delbaere won't have to tote his crystals hundreds or thousands of kilometres to a synchrotron outside Canada's borders. Travel can cause protein crystals to degrade. That's a real problem when one of the keys to success is using the most perfect crystals possible.


One of the unique characteristics of the Canadian Light Source is its mandate to balance the synchrotron's usage among academia, government, and industry. The project involves a partnership among federal, provincial, and civic governments, as well as academic institutions and private-sector firms. The Canada Foundation for Innovation, Saskatchewan Industry and Resources, SaskPower, the City of Saskatoon, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, the Ontario Innovation Trust, Alberta Innovation and Science, and the Canadian government have all contributed to the project.

One of the private-sector firms—Boehringer Ingelheim (Canada) Ltd.—is contributing $500,000 over five years to help build a beamline laboratory. The lab will be a conduit for carrying synchrotron light to experimental work stations and will be used to study protein crystals. The data provided by that research will be vital in designing new drugs. "We are extremely pleased to contribute to the construction of this state-of-the-art research facility," says Dr. Paul Anderson, Senior Vice-president of Research and Development at Boehringer Ingelheim. "This investment is a further example of our commitment to research and development in Canada."

Another pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, has also contributed $500,000 over five years to help endow a research chair at the University of Saskatchewan. The chair is reserved for an expert in the design of new drugs. "We are committed to helping Canada become a global leader in R&D by providing opportunities for Canada's talented scientists and researchers," says Geoffrey Mitchinson, Vice-president of Public Affairs at GlaxoSmithKline.