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New ‘super’ microscopes sharpen cellular imaging

Jul. 11, 2013, 9:15 AM

Senior Research Specialist Sean Schaffer positions a sample in Vanderbilt’s new super-resolution microscopy system known as “STORM.” On the computer screen in red is a remarkably detailed image of a microtubule cytoskeleton. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Two new “super-resolution” optical microscopes have put Vanderbilt University Medical Center on the cutting edge of cellular imaging, and are giving researchers their first views of the cell at the molecular level.

“It’s like putting on your glasses in the morning — everything suddenly gets a lot clearer,” said Matthew Tyska, Ph.D., principal investigator of a $1.1 million National Institutes of Health grant (S10-OD012324) to purchase the instruments earlier this year.

Investigators from the Epithelial Biology Center (EBC) played a central role in acquiring the microscopes by coordinating the user group and supporting the acquisition of preliminary data that led to the successful grant application.

One instrument, an OMX V4 structured illumination microscopy (SIM) system made by Applied Precision, creates images of living cells with a two-fold increase in resolution — from 200 nanometers to 100 nanometers — compared to confocal microscopy.

“That puts the cell biologist in the ‘sweet spot,’” said Tyska, associate professor of Cell & Developmental Biology. “Label the cell up with probes for your favorite molecule or organelle… you can see amazing things.”

With SIM, researchers can see individual virus particles; microvilli and cilia, the cell’s receiving and signaling “antenna;” and intracellular vesicles used to “traffic” proteins.

The other instrument, a stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy (STORM) system, generates images of fixed, non-living biological samples with a 10-fold increase in resolution over SIM, enabling researchers to get down to the single molecule level.

A handful of Vanderbilt labs have begun to use the OMX, located in the EBC on the 10th floor of MRB IV. The EBC played a central role in getting these new microscopes to Vanderbilt by coordinating the user group and supporting the acquisition of preliminary data. The STORM system, on the 7th floor of MRB III, was only recently installed.

Both instruments are managed by the Vanderbilt Cell Imaging Shared Resource (CISR), which is providing training on microscope use and sample preparation requirements. For more information, contact CISR staff at 3-3750.

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