Science! By Jan. 23, 2015 9:30 am
High-speed 3D microscope: biology moves from photo to video | Science! |

The advent of high-speed cameras resulted in an onslaught of terrible video content — you’ve seen a bearded man yawn, but have you seen a bearded man yawn in high speed? The uncreatives had found the latest and greatest way to make something cool without needing any particular talent, and ‘lo, the internet did tremble. Similarly, micrographs have been a huge PR boon for many branches of science, kickstarting interest in cellular- or molecular-scale work that would otherwise have been way too abstract to really grab most people. Now, the two ideas are colliding, with the ability to collect high-speed video on the microscopic scale. Thankfully, the tools necessary to do this are much more specialized than for macro-scale video, and the ability will likely stay confined to people with the maturity to use it properly.

The microscopes in question actually only see down to about the cellular resolution (no watching enzyme kinetics just yet) but at that level it’s still possible to watch all sorts of ongoing processes. Called Swept Con focally Aligned Planar Excitation microscopy (SCAPE) the technique can collect a frame of information about every tenth of a second — that’s not on par with the Red One super-camera, but a huge step forward from serious scientific achievements.

The video below shows the researchers recording the beating hearts of live, moving fruit-fly larva; the system can capture detail so dynamically that they had to keep moving the slide to keep a fidgeting larva in view. This is a remarkably robust way of peering into an organism, not prone to blurring due to small shocks, not dependent on finicky mirror arrangements.

By far the most important possible application of this technology, at least in the short term, is to neurology. The researchers claim they have already been able to use SCAPE imaging to watch the firing of neurons at the surface of a mouse brain — a huge achievement, though SCAPE cannot penetrate to see as deeply into tissues as more conventional single-shot microscopy methods. Watching literal video of neuron behavior in a living brain is a dream for many researchers in brain science, and this technique could help make that dream come true.

High-speed 3D microscope: biology moves from photo to video | Science! |

“Have you ever seen a larval fruit fly heartbeat… in HIGH SPEEEED?”

The technique works by sweeping its interrogating beam of light over the sample multiple times per second, eliminating the need to adjust either the position of the sample or the angling of multiple light sources. By sweeping a single, wide-angle light sheet, the technique can create 3D images quickly and fairly cheaply. Related techniques like optogenics, which controls the firing of individual neurons by shining light on them, could be used in concert since the SCAPE technique requires so little mucking about with the sample or microscopic setup. In this scenario, a scientist could optically induce a neuron to fire, then watch the electrical full chain reaction that results, in real-time, and with the ability to view later from a whole different angle.

Since the technique uses fluorescent proteins to collect its information, this is really more like high-speed motion capture than conventional videography; it is able to be reconstructed in 3D because the picture elements are data points collected and later rendered by the computer, not simply pixels that get recorded and regurgitated in an identical form. That’s a big, fundamental step forward for many areas of biology. With such a robust way of collecting frames of cellular motion capture, scientists may be one big step closer to determining the workings of the living brain.

Now read: Saving a file on a computer found to boost human memory

High-speed 3D microscope: biology moves from photo to video | Science! |


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