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Breaking the light barrier in medical microscopy: More on today's Nobel-winning work

Earlier today, Stanford University's W.E. Moerner, PhD, was one of three scientists to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work in super-resolution microscopy. Before this technology, the only way to look at structures inside cells was with electron microscopy. But that requires researchers to kill the tissue in order to prepare it for the microscope. Essentially, the objects being examined were frozen in place; scientists could make out cellular structures but couldn't watch them in action.

Microscopes that use refracted light, or optical microscopes, can be used to observe living cells, but for decades, they were limited from going below 220 nanometers, a hard limit imposed by the wavelength of light. Eric Betzig, PhD, of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Stefan W. Hell, PhD, of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany shared the prize with Moerner for work that helped break that barrier. Now, researchers can peek inside cells as they are going about their business and observe real-time changes as they happen.

This morning, Moerner spoke to Stanford's news office via Skype from Brazil about his work and how other researchers, including Lucy Shapiro, PhD, and Matt Scott, PhD, of Stanford's School of Medicine are applying the new methods to medical research (see above video). Shapiro, a 10-year collaborator of Moerner's, is examining structures inside bacteria and Scott is looking at subcellular signalling structures. (Shapiro provides comment on her work in a Stanford press release.)

“Because of this revolutionary work, scientists can now visualize the pathways of individual molecules inside living cells,” Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health, which funds some of Moerner's work, said in a statement. “Researchers can see how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain, and they can track proteins involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases."

Below is a clip of Moerner describing what those studying Huntington's disease have learned using the prize-winning microscopy technology.

Previously: For third year in row, a Stanford faculty member wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Videos courtesy of Stanford University Communications

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