Newswise — WASHINGTON, D.C., July 22, 2018 -- A laboratory at the Illinois Institute of Technology is using fiber diffraction to examine tissue structures in the human brain and heart, as well as in T. rex fossils. Few researchers use this type of X-ray diffraction because of the time and labor required to complete experiments, but as a result of their specialization, Joseph Orgel’s lab manages a broad portfolio of specialized projects. Orgel has resolved images of the fine threads of collagen fibrils in connective, neurological and dinosaur tissues to one-billionth of a meter. 

During the 68th Annual Meeting of the American Crystallographic Association, being held July 20-24, 2018, in Toronto, Canada, Joseph Orgel, professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, will explain his work using X-ray fiber diffraction. 

In X-ray diffraction, researchers shine an X-ray beam at a sample and measure the beam’s diffracted angles and intensities to create a picture of the sample’s molecular structure. Unlike the density contrast-based X-ray picture a doctor may take of a patient, X-ray diffraction looks at patterns in diffracted light to see a sample’s internal symmetry and determine its crystalline properties. 

Orgel honed his X-ray diffraction methodology to look at type I collagen, which appears in bones, tissues and ligaments. “It’s an extraordinarily powerful approach because it can take a sample without having to modify it or shave it down. You are able to take most samples as they are, put them in the X-ray beam, and then, diffract it,” Orgel said. “It gives you a non-artifact-inducing facility to see what’s going on.” It also enables you to visualize large molecular structures. 

In some potentially controversial results, Orgel’s X-ray diffraction data show an “abundant quantity of crystalline-organized tissue components from … what is essentially thought to be a rock, a dinosaur fossil.” Orgel explained that, despite agreement among collagen experts, paleontologists have yet to reach a consensus on the dinosaur tissue findings because it upsets long-standing paradigms in the field. “People don’t want to believe that there’s actually a fair amount of tissue preserved in at least some of the fossil specimens we have sitting on shelves in museums,” Orgel said. 

Orgel and his lab also use X-ray diffraction to investigate human tissue structures for future medical research on the brain and heart. By observing structural changes in tissues, Orgel can track injury-related damage and find potential risk spots. 

Similarly, Orgel is investigating the mechanical properties of multicomponent tissues, focusing on how skeletal muscles integrate with connective tissue. It is known that deformation at a particular spot leads to injuries in the Achilles tendon, for instance. The team is now translating that concept to structures in the human heart to find failure points in heart valves. Currently, Orgel and his team are mapping the stress and strain fields along tissue in the heart as part of a project to improve robotic surgery.


Presentation “Contemporary and ancient tissues give modern insights into biomedical engineering,” by Joseph Orgel, will be at 1:30 p.m. EDT, Sunday, July 22, in the Provincial South Session Room at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel. 


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The American Crystallographic Association was founded in 1949 through a merger of the American Society for X-Ray and Electron Diffraction (ASXRED) and the Crystallographic Society of America (CSA). The objective of the ACA is to promote interactions among scientists who study the structure of matter at atomic (or near atomic) resolution. These interactions will advance experimental and computational aspects of crystallography and diffraction.  Understanding the nature of the forces that both control and result from the molecular and atomic arrangements in matter will help shed light on chemical interactions in nature and can therefore lead to cures for disease. See