Student Fayyad Zaman, left, and researcher Christopher Beh use SFU's new super-resolution microscope that bends the laws of physics to visualize macromolecules in live cells.

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'Microscopic' improvements yield big gains in SFU’s research capabilities

January 17, 2019
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By Diane Mar-Nicolle

Imagine what a single nerve cell looks like under a microscope.

Now imagine how it might look if the microscope could probe even deeper—right into the cells and straight to the molecules forming the dynamic structures that create all living cells.

SFU researchers can now do just that thanks to a "super-resolution microscope" recently purchased with help from the NSERC Research Tools and Instruments Grants Program and installed in the Faculty of Science. Contributions from several other departments, faculties and SFU's Office of the Vice-President, Research were also crucial to its acquisition.

The breakthrough technology revolutionizes the field of cell imaging by bending the laws of physics to visualize macromolecules in live cells. These macromolecules are smaller than the actual wavelength of light.

That’s exciting news for researchers like Christopher Beh, a member of both the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and of SFU’s Centre for Cell Biology, Development and Disease (C2D2).

Beh is using the new $750,000-microscope system to help understand the cellular machines that transport internal cellular membrane components, as well as how the membrane attachments within cells affect their growth and division. Both of these processes are involved in cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Using the super-resolution microscopy, Beh can track implicated molecules in living cells to identify their activities.

The high-resolution microscope shows yeast cells in which protein complexes (in green) can be seen at the cell membrane where they reach back within the cell to “tether" internal membranes with the inside of the cell surface.

 “The microscope has capabilities beyond our existing equipment,” he says. “Namely, a combination of high sensitivity, speed, excellent depth of visual penetration, and significantly higher resolving power.”

The new microscope will also serve researchers whose interests range from the regulation of nerve cells and the molecular basis of organ development, to cellular causes of cancer and tracking intracellular pathogens.

Beh predicts the microscope will boost productivity and lessen the strain on existing microscopy infrastructure, which has less resolution but is heavily used nonetheless.

“Additionally, the microscope will provide a valuable training tool for hundreds of students and researchers, and will be available for external companies and research groups to use.”

The new microscopy system is part of a larger plan to give SFU cell biologists the option of using even higher-resolution electron microscopes at SFU's 4D LABS. These microscopes require cells to be flash-frozen in milliseconds under enormous pressure to preserve their internal structure for viewing. This type of "cryo"electron microscopy can visualize objects 10,000 times smaller than the width of a single hair, which is about 100 times more powerful than even the new super-resolution microscope.

Says Beh, “The combination of these systems will give SFU researchers cutting-edge technologies to directly visualize the dynamics of subtle structures within cells that are often the causative agents of disease.”