July 27, 2004
MIT Electron Microsope Offers Higher Resolution For Biological Molecules

Paul Matsudaira, a Whitehead Institute Member, professor of biology, and professor of bioengineering at MIT, has just set up a unique new electron microscope with the ability to image biological molecules at near-atomic resolution.

Deep in MIT’s labyrinthine campus, the Whitehead/MIT BioImaging Center, a collaboration launched a few years ago with seed funding from the W. M. Keck Foundation, and headed by Matsudaira, has set up its new digs. Right in the middle, sequestered in a specially designed, environmentally isolated room, is the Center’s prize possession: a $2M cryoelectron microscope, the JEOL 2200FS.

The first one of its kind in the world for biology problems, the microscope is designed to image the smallest biological molecules at near-atomic resolution, surpassing what most other microscopes can offer.

Like all electron microscopes, this one images electrons as they pass through an object. Placing the microscope in a climate-controlled room isolated from vibrations, magnetic fields, and even people—the microscope is operated remotely—helps stabilize these easily perturbed electrons, thus improving image quality. In spite of these environmental safeguards, some electrons lose energy simply by colliding with atoms, often clouding the image that the microscope detects. A built-in energy filter acts as a sort of funnel, collecting only the electrons that have not lost energy. Put another way, it only photographs electrons that are in focus. Knowing a protein’s shape is intrinsic to understanding its function, so this sort of imaging makes for more than just a pretty picture.

The energy filter makes this electron microscope unique.

Although a handful of other microscopes in the world are capable of imaging at such a resolution, the lack of an energy filter forces a reliance on computer applications to complete the images. Says Matsudaira, “This one just doesn’t have to work as hard as the others to get the same results.”

The tools keep getting better and so the rate of bioscientific and biotechnological progress keeps on accelerating.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 July 27 11:22 PM  Biotech Advance Rates

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