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A New Microscope Can See Inside Moving Cells In Real Time, and There Are Videos

Erik Betzig just won a Nobel Prize for his new microscope—his follow up is even better.
Image: Science

Earlier this month, Virginia scientist Eric Betzig won a Nobel Prize for a new type of microscopy he developed. Today, he published a new paper that arguably blows that Nobel-winning research out of the water.

His Nobel-winning discoveries were in the field of fluorescent microscopy, which allowed him to see within cells at incredibly high resolutions. His previous method involved destroying the cells he and his team observed, because light itself is toxic to many cells (and light is necessary to perform microscopy). The resulting images were awesome, but photos could only be taken for a very short period of time before the cell was damaged to a point that it was no longer useful.


The problem with that, Betzig and co-authors admit in a new paper published today in Science, is that "many biological processes are too fragile, are too small, or occur too rapidly to see clearly with existing tools."

In their new work, the team describes a method of shooting light in from the side in two-dimensional sheets—a tactic Betzig calls lattice light-sheet microscopy—which allows basically any cell function to be directly imaged in living cells, in real time, without damaging the cells nearly as much as his old method.

What does this mean? Well, it means that we can now watch, in incredible resolution and in three dimensions, nerve cells forming synapses in the brain; cells undergoing mitosis; the formation of an embryo after sperm fertilizes an egg; and even internal cell functions such as protein translation, mitochondrial movements, and muscle flexes.

In fact, the resolution is high enough that Betzig can follow a single molecule as it moves around a cell, a breakthrough that he writes is "essential to understand the molecular basis of cellular physiology."

A cell in prophase (left) and in anaphase (right). Image: Science

This is huge, because while looking at dead cells or the few relatively slow processes of living cells is certainly interesting and instructive, it's not necessarily groundbreaking. This new method, on the other hand, could be.

"Although structural imaging is certainly informative, a more-complete understanding of how inanimate molecules assemble to create animate life requires high-resolution imaging across all four dimensions of space-time simultaneously," he wrote.


As for the imaging itself, well, the new lighting method allows him to take many more layers of two-dimensional photos, which can then be layered to make videos and the insane photos you see here. He writes that each photo you see here is actually "distilled from tens to hundreds of thousands of raw 2D images acquired from each specimen."

A researcher who has used the microscope told the Washington Post that it is indeed revolutionary.

"I feel a bit like Galileo," he said. "Everywhere you point this thing, you're going to learn something new."

But, enough about the work. Enjoy the videos and photos: