Howard Hughes would have loved this. Suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, Hughes would only pick things up with a tissue, in order to avoid germs.
Bessel beam plate illumination microscopeNow, researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) have developed a way to watch these germs moving in 3D. Postdoctoral researchers Liang Gao and Thomas Planchon, and group leader Eric Betzig (all pictured), have created a beast they call a Bessel beam plate illumination microscope, at HHMI's Janelia Farm facility.
By using an extremely thin sheet of light to image at high speed, the microscope is able to see inside living cells, and watch them work their magic in a way never before experienced by people who spend their lives peering at very very very small things.
The big trick is in the light. The sweep of the Bessel beam creates a very thin light sheet, which is minimally invasive. With existing microscopy technology, it has been possible to observe tiny things in 3D, but not for long - because the intense light required kills, or severely damages, whatever it is you're observing. Or worse, many microscopy techniques need their cells to keep still, so you have to kill them before you observe them. If you watch a dead man play baseball, you'll never know what it means to get to home base.
As Betzig says, “There's no other technique that comes close to imaging as long with such high spatial and temporal detail.” And that has huge implications for the field of microscopy, allowing researchers to get a much better understanding of cell dynamics, and taking us one step closer to Betzig's dream, to "observe what’s happening in a single molecule in a single cell that is inside your heart right now."
Here's what was happening in a cervical cancer cell recently: