Science laboratories at the University have adopted Nobel-Prize-winning magnified microscopes to analyze molecules that were once invisible to humans.

The new devices allow researchers to look into the dynamics of tiny molecules and their operations within the human anatomy. They enable researchers to detect molecules as small as bacteria more often and understand them more fully.

Nils Walter, professor of chemistry and biophysics, said scientists can witness to the infinitesimal activity of living cells, which carries significant costs and benefits thanks to award-winning techniques in chemistry.

“The recent Nobel Prize in chemistry to Betzig, Hell and Moerner was for single molecule fluorescence microscopy, leading to super-resolution microscopy,” Walter said.

Julie Biteen, assistant professor of chemistry, said fluorescence microscopy is most efficient for studying single molecules. She said single-molecule imaging is enabled by isolating molecules at low concentrations and then detecting the fluorescence from those isolated molecules on sensitive cameras.

“Fluorescence microscopy is ideal for single-molecule experiments because it has very high signal and low backgrounds,” Biteen said.

The innovation of super-resolution techniques, as adopted by many universities, has allowed scientists to detect a cell’s movements and actions at the highest precision to date.

Walter said these techniques are best operated on single molecules, which have provided academics with a clearer understanding of the interior of a bacterial cell.

​“One of the applications of the new single molecule and super-resolution techniques is to ​be able to pinpoint the position and molecular processes on our DNA,” Walter said. “We can see how our DNA breaks and, through homologous DNA repair, can take up new pieces of information that may ‘immunize’ a cell against a pathogen or disease. With the parallel development of ever more sophisticated ‘molecular scissors,’ we can expect to be able to find ever better controlled ways to both monitor and manipulate our genomic DNA,” he said.

Prior to these molecular techniques, scientists only had a nominal understanding of where, how quickly and when molecules — such as proteins and bacteria — travelled. Today, Walter said, researchers are closer to gaining total insight into these molecules and their potential errors and benefits.

“Technology will eventually allow us to piece all this information together to finally understand how a cell works and what goes wrong when it becomes diseased or ages,” says Walter.

Walter said while correcting and enhancing our DNA sequences would have tremendous payoffs, the moral implications of these rapid advancements concern many researchers.

“Hopefully, our intellectual evolution will occur rapidly enough to make it possible for us to ethically deal with all this new information and power,” he said.

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