Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

A new microscope has allowed researchers to watch molecules move within a cell on a millisecond-by-millisecond time scale for the first time. The novel method, which combines two preëxisting microscopic techniques, opens a window onto cellular processes that had previously been undetectable, unveiling molecular activity within a cell at a much finer level than ever before possible.

“This allows us to look at interactions of molecules, and their mobility,” says Malte Wachsmuth, a cell biophysicist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, who helped develop the new microscope. Current microscopy techniques can home in on a single spot within a cell, but they can miss vital information when the focus moves from one spot to another. “A typical protein might spend one to two milliseconds in such a spot,” Wachsmuth says. “Molecules are quite mobile, diffusing all around, and it’s a very fast process. A lot can happen in a few tens of milliseconds.”

The technique developed by Wachsmuth and his colleagues allows them to analyze proteins and other molecules inside an entire cell, all at once, as they move about. It combines light-sheet microscopy, which illuminates just a thin plane of an object, and single-molecule spectroscopy, which can track movements of individual molecules. The result offers both high sensitivity and fast processing time.

The researchers believe the technology could be very helpful for understanding how proteins drive processes like transcription (the method through which DNA is expressed). “Understanding how proteins interact with each other is what everybody’s interested in, in terms of trying to decipher cell biochemistry,” says Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, a cell biologist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who was not involved in the research.

The scientists quickly put their tool to use. “We could watch a single molecule in the nucleus of a cell as it goes from one compartment to another,” Wachsmuth says. He and his collaborators also examined how proteins bind to tightly wound DNA, called chromatin, during the process of transcription inside a cell’s nucleus. Researchers still don’t understand the intricacies of how transcription proceeds. Previous studies had suggested that when proteins are tagged with fluorescence, bright spots attached to the chromatin indicated longer binding times while dim spots indicated briefer visits. But when the researchers trained their new microscope on the process and analyzed protein movements within the nucleus, they found that the dynamics are far more complex, with binding times equal in dim areas and bright ones.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Credit: Nature Biotechnology

Tagged: Biomedicine

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me
×

A Place of Inspiration

Understand the technologies that are changing business and driving the new global economy.

September 23-25, 2014
Register »