New microscope rapidly captures molecules, cells in high-def

When Eric Betzig shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry a few weeks ago, little did the world know that he was already in the middle of cooking up yet another award-worthy development. After his PALM microscope, Betzig is now taking the biology world by storm again with a new lattice light microscope. This microscope is not only able to capture high resolution images of molecules and cells, it can do so rapidly and in complete three dimensions. And all these while minimizing damage to the cells being photographed.

Microscopes have long been able to photograph cells at their molecular level but there have always been trade-offs. Either the images are not too detailed or they damage the cells because the intensity of light (phototoxicity). They also mostly just take snapshots in time, which gives pictures of cells at various stages but not the whole picture. Some might considering moving pictures just as eye candy, but in the world of biology, that is crucial to the thorough understanding of life.

Betzig and his colleagues at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) have stumbled upon the solution to all those problems, opening the floodgates of knowledge for biologists. To solve the problem of getting high-resolution images, the team employed the use of a kind of non-diffracting light called a Bessel beam. But in order to lessen the damage done to cells, they split the beam into parallel parts so while the total amount of light is the same, the amount that they get in one go isn't as big. But the microscope can work at even less lethal and faster "dithered" mode at the expense of image quality.

It may all sound like a bunch of scientists rejoicing over a new toy, but the new microscope can have a tremendous effect on how scientist will be able to understand what they call the "molecules that animate life". Having high resolution three dimensional videos of how cells interact, how viruses infect cells, and much more will be crucial in fighting diseases, for one. Luckily for scientists, at least in the US, Betzig and his team aren't keeping the microscope for themselves. They have already sent a second lattice light-sheet microscope to HHMI's Janelia Research Campus for use by any visiting scientist for free. They also have two others sent to Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco. They are also freely sharing their designs so that other scientists who have the resources can build theirs as well.

SOURCE: Howard Hughes Medical Institute