Better together: Merged microscope offers unprecedented look at biological processes in living cells
NIH researchers combine two microscope technologies to create sharper, faster images.
Hari Shroff, Ph.D., NIBIB
Scientists at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) have combined two different microscope technologies to create sharper images of rapidly moving processes inside a cell. NIBIB is part of the National Institutes of Health.
In a paper published today in Nature Methods, Hari Shroff, Ph.D., chief of NIBIB’s lab section on High Resolution Optical Imaging (HROI), describes his new improvements to traditional Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy. TIRF microscopy illuminates the sample at a sharp angle so that the light reflects back, illuminating only a thin section of the sample that is extremely close to the coverslip. This process creates very high contrast images because it eliminates much of the background, out-of-focus, light that conventional microscopes pick up.
While TIRF microscopy has been used in cell biology for decades, it produces blurry images of small features within cells. In the past, super-resolution microscopy techniques applied to TIRF microscopes have been able to improve the resolution, but such attempts have always compromised speed, making it impossible to clearly image objects that move rapidly. As a result, many cellular processes remain too small or fast to observe.
Shroff and his team realized that if they could take a high-speed, super-resolution microscope and modify it to act like a TIRF microscope, they could obtain the benefits of both. Instant structured illumination microscopy (iSIM), developed by the Shroff lab in 2013, can capture video at 100 frames per second, which is more than 3 times faster than most movies or internet videos. However, iSIM does not have the contrast that TIRF microscopes do. The team designed a simple “mask” that blocked most of the illumination from the iSIM—mimicking a TIRF microscope. Combining the strengths of both types of microscopy enabled the researchers to observe rapidly moving objects about 10 times faster than other microscopes at similar resolution.
“TIRF microscopy has been around for more than 30 years and it is so useful that it will likely be around for at least the next 30,” said Shroff. “Our method improves the spatial resolution of TIRF microscopy without compromising speed — something that no other microscope can do. We hope it helps us clarify high-speed biology that might otherwise be hidden or blurred by other microscopes so that we can better understand how biological processes work.”
For example, with the new microscope, Shroff and his team were able to follow rapidly moving Rab11 particles near the plasma membrane of human cells. Attached to molecular cargo that are transported around the cell, these particles move so fast that they are blurred when imaged by other microscopes. They also used their technique to reveal the dynamics and spatial distribution of HRas, a protein that has been implicated in facilitating the growth of cancerous tumors. As with all of the microscopes developed by the Shroff team, researchers are welcome to contact the lab to try the microscope out, or to acquire free schematics of the technology.
This press release describes a basic research finding. Basic research increases our understanding of human behavior and biology, which is foundational to advancing new and better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. Science is an unpredictable and incremental process—each research advance builds on past discoveries, often in unexpected ways. Most clinical advances would not be possible without the knowledge of fundamental basic research.
The mission of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) is to improve health by leading the development and accelerating the application of biomedical technologies. The Institute is committed to integrating the physical and engineering sciences with the life sciences to advance basic research and medical care. For more information about the NIBIB, visit https://www.nibib.nih.gov.
About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.
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