Just weeks after sharing the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work involving high-resolution microscopes, a U.S. researcher has again stunned the scientific world with a new technique that peers deeply into living cells.
Eric Betzig and colleagues at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia are reporting a new microscopy technique aimed at allowing researchers to observe processes within living cells at extremely detailed resolution and at high speed.
Betzig, who developed the Nobel-winning PALM telescope after growing frustrated with limitations of existing observing technologies, presented his new development, known as lattice light-sheet microscopy, in the journal Science.
PALM was effective at observing living systems but only when they moved slowly, he said. It wasn't quick enough to make observations that could provide high-resolution pictures of cellular divisions that happen rapidly, he explained.
In existing microscopes, a sample of cells is illuminated by a beam of light that shines into the sample and is then bounced back to the observer.
Because the light is hitting cells from both above and below, it results in a haze in the area of focus, obscuring fine details, and can also damage the cell sample because light can be toxic to living systems over time.
In his new lattice light sheet development, sheets of light are generated and aimed at the sample from the side, causing less harm than a solid cone of illuminating light.
"What was shocking to us was that by spreading the energy out across seven beams instead of one, the phototoxicity went way down," Betzig says. "What I learned from that experience is that while the total dose of light you put on the cell is important, what's far more important is the instantaneous power that you put on the cell."
The ability to observe cells at high speed and high resolution as they divide and grow will help researchers in their understanding of processes involved in diseases such as cancer and congenital problems that occur in cell division in embryos, Betzig says.
Betzig and his research team have freely shared their design, offering detailed instruction for other scientists to build their own version of the lattice light sheet instrument.
You can see the kind of clear view this microscopy technique offers here, in videos offered by Betzig Lab at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and published in the Oct. 24, 2014 issue of Science.
Optical firm Zeiss has also licensed the technology, which will allow it to be widely available to scientists in many field, Betzig says.
"It takes a huge amount of effort to move from a successful high-tech prototype to broader adoption of an imaging technology," Betzig says. "Ultimately, commercialization is the crucial last step to ensuring that these technologies can have broad impact in the research community."