New Microscope Reveals What Is Really Going On Inside Your Cells

Thanks to a new microscope, scientists can now take 3-D movies of molecular processes that previously were invisible to us. Developed at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, the microscope allows researchers to peer into living cells and see multiple molecules in action. It is already providing new insights into the biochemistry of life.

How it Works

Like many technological advances, the new microscope combines previous techniques to take a significant leap forward. Light-sheet microscopy is a common research technique that illuminates a microscopic object with a sheet of light.

The microscope then takes snapshots of the object from multiple angles to produce a 3-D image (which is pretty much also how those talented professionals making the big graphic design salaries could make you feel like you were rotating around Keanu Reeves in mid-karate kick while watching The Matrix, not to mention every character in every other action movie since).

Another technique, single molecule spectroscopy, has allowed scientists to tag a molecule with fluorescence and then use the fluorescence to observe the molecule, though not much else.

Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

The new microscope combines light-sheet microscopy with single-molecule spectroscopy. It allows researchers to observe and measure the complex processes of living cells molecules, which are so small they are measured in nanometers (to give you an idea of how small a nanometer is, if you are five feet, eight inches tall then you are also about 1,727,200,000 nanometers tall, close to two billion!).

Pixel by Pixel Views

Unlike single molecule spectroscopy, the new microscope can record every pixel in view across a sample, even if the sample contains multiple cells. The microscope can also take shots at intervals of less than a millisecond, allowing it to record the processes it is observing as movies in 3-D. You can see some of the new microscope movies of subjects such as yeast cells and fruit fly larval wings at

New Insights

The microscope can only be used in living cells, but in doing so, it will allow scientists to better understand a variety of biochemical processes (everything your body is doing right now, including reading this screen, is a result, at least partially, of biochemical processes). It has already provided surprises to scientists who study chromatin, which is basically the DNA, RNA, and protein that make up the chromosomes in a cell’s nucleus.

Scientists had previously only observed chromatin either tightly wound and therefore unreadable to the cell, like a closed book, or loose and readable, like an open book. The new microscope has revealed that in the presence of a certain protein, chromatin appears to have an intermediate stage between the previously known stages.

This is only the beginning. Because the microscope can observe complex processes in what is almost real-time, scientists predict it will help us better understand a variety of biochemical processes, ranging from the role of growth hormones in cancer to the regulation of cell division and the patterning of tissue development in an embryo. can’t wait to see what this amazing technology will teach us and how it helps students at technology colleges see how their ideas can change the world.

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