Scialog: Collaborative Teams - 2016
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Physics
University of California, Santa Barbara, Mechanical Engineering
Commoditizing advanced molecular imaging techniques
Advanced imaging tools are revolutionizing our understanding of what goes on inside living cells, but not all scientists have access to technologies such as Total Internal Reflection (TIRF) imaging or single-molecule and super-resolution microscopy. These techniques require expensive microscopes, which are accessible to only well-funded laboratories.
Now, financed by an innovative Scialog award, four scientists from different research universities have come together to develop an elegantly simple technology that would make advanced microscopy techniques accessible to virtually any laboratory in the world. Their approach, which involves developing “smart-coverslips” for microscopy has the advantage of being dirt cheap – about $20 per coverslip. They are Ibrahim Cissé, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Moumita Das, Rochester Institute of Technology, Megan Valentine, University of California, Santa Barbara, and Ali Yanik, University of California, Santa Cruz.
“We anticipate that if successful, smart-coverslips will commoditize advanced imaging techniques, and bring the technology into many laboratories and imaging centers around the world that may have a simple conventional fluorescence microscope but cannot afford TIRF or super-resolution,” the researchers said in their funding proposal.
In essence, the smart coverslip would provide additional fine focus to the object under the microscope. It would do this by capitalizing on excitation of surface plasmons on metal surfaces such as gold. Basically, surface plasmon is a type of elementary excitation similar to a photon, which is the quantum unit of electromagnetic waves. However, surface plasmons demonstrate characteristics of both photons and electrons, hence they can be excited by using either one of these fundamental excitations. When excited by photons, surface plasmons can focus the electromagnetic field into dramatically small dimensions well beyond what is theoretically achievable using even the best optical lenses. Because these plasmons are much smaller than visible light waves, the scientists hope to use them to view extremely tiny objects that would normally appear smeared or blurry because light waves are too spread out to bring them into critical focus. This technology will allow visualization of nanoscopic objects, including single proteins. The team is particularly interested in studying the motions of a small protein called kinesin, which is essential for moving intracellular cargos over long distances, and is particularly important for nervous system health. By developing new, low-cost methods to visualize kinesins, and other proteins, the team hopes to provide new insight into the inner working of living cells, while providing new tools to tackle critical diseases, including Alzheimer's disease and chemotherapy-induced neuropathy.
Cissé, Das, Valentine and Yanik are among more than 60 early career scientists participating in Scialog: Molecules Come to Life, a three-year program jointly sponsored by Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Additional funding has been provided by the Simons Foundation. Scialog supports research, intensive dialog and community building to address scientific challenges of global significance. Within each multi-year initiative, Scialog Fellows collaborate in high-risk discovery research on untested ideas and communicate their progress and form new collaborations in annual conferences.
Molecules Come to Life focuses on such questions as, what are the fundamental principles that make a collection of molecules within a cell produce behaviors that we associate with life? How do molecules combine and dynamically interact to form functional units in cells, and how do cells themselves interact to form more complex lifeforms? –Yanik as “we”
The researchers formed their collaboration at a Scialog conference held earlier this year in Tucson, Arizona. There, scientists from diverse fields of biology, physics and chemistry engaged in intensive discussions designed to produce creative ideas for innovative research.
“Scialog aims to encourage collaborations between theorists and experimentalists,” said RCSA Program Director Richard Wiener. “And, we encourage approaches that are driven by theory and coarse-grained modeling, that are testable by experiments.”