The University of Dundee is among 17 projects sharing a £24.5million cash injection to boost the resolution revolution taking place in microscope technology.

Three of the UK’s research councils – the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – have invested £20.1m, £2.4m and £2m respectively, to establish 17 microscopy platforms that will bring about ground breaking advances in biological and biomedical research.

Many of the initiatives funded combine different and sometimes entirely new microscopy techniques to answer crucial questions about biological processes. The revolution in microscopy builds dramatically on the previous limits of electron and light (optical) microscopy. Electron microscopy has very high resolution but can not be used to image living cells or organisms. Traditional light microscopy can look at living materials but has far lower resolution.

The new generation of imaging techniques are now able to greatly increase the resolution – sometimes to close to molecular level – when studying an intact and living cell. These structures are some of the smallest things that scientists have been able to visualise.  For example, a cell membrane is about 6-10 nanometres (a nanometre is 1 millionth of a millimetre).

As well as increasing the magnification, researchers are now able to study live biological processes as they are taking place at fractions of a second. Being able to visualise these tiny biological structures, such as the proteins involved in cell function and the biological and chemical processes in which they are involved, will allow researchers to understand more about what causes disease.

The University of Dundee hosts one of the UK’s largest and most advanced light microscopy facilities, with 18 imaging platforms supporting life science research scientists from Dundee and visiting scientists from every corner of the globe.

Despite having access to some of the most specialised and cutting edge technology available, certain fundamental biological processes can only be examined with super-resolution light microscopy,” explained Dr Sam Swift, Director of the imaging facility in the College of Life Sciences at Dundee. “In the past we could either look at dynamic processes at relatively low resolution, or study fixed material at very high resolution.  The ability to now combine these two approaches is very exciting and opens the door to a range of experimental approaches that were previously not possible.”

Dundee will receive around £1million of the new funding to support two imaging systems. The first is an upgrade an existing platform – the OMXmicroscope – that achieves super-resolution using a technique called ‘structured illumination microscopy’. The OMX has been created as a national resource and the system has been extremely popular – 50 per cent usage is dedicated to external users, and Dundee has hosted scientists from 19 different institutions from all over the UK and Europe.

“We want to extend OMX’s super-resolution capabilities to look at live samples to further understand fundamental questions in cellular dynamics,” said Professor Jason Swedlow, in the College of Life Sciences at Dundee.

The funding will also support the creation of a second microscope, a light sheet florescence microscope (LSFM). LSFM is a novel technology which is particularly well suited to examining the properties of cells in tissues. The LSFM which will be built at Dundee also enables super resolution live cell imaging, using a special illumination technique called a Bessel beam, developed by physicists based in Dundee who actively collaborate with biological research scientists to deliver novel approaches to imaging applications.

Professor Swedlow said, “With our established expertise in running advanced imaging systems and making them available to the wider community, we are sure these new systems will enable science across a broad range of applications, from the most basic studies of single-celled to the development of embryos and how cancer works as a disease.”

Professor Steve Hill, who chaired the expert panel which assessed the proposals, said, “Microscopy is one of the most important tools scientists have for discovery-based research but the high costs associated with this technology are often a barrier to expansion. This funding is crucial to help the UK capitalise on the latest technologies and maintain its internationally leading position in biological and biomedical research.

”This type of microscopy relies on scientists in very different disciplines coming together to solve very specific imaging problems. All seventeen projects were able to demonstrate extremely strong partnerships between biologists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, engineers, technologists and equipment manufacturers.”

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said, “These substantial funding awards will bring together the UK’s world-class research base and industry to keep our life sciences sector at the forefront of discovery. Through exploring innovative new uses for microscopy they will improve our understanding of disease and ultimately deliver benefits for patients.”

*image shows `Retinal pigment epithelial cell in mitosis’ (Markus Posch, University of Dundee)