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Knocking electrons out of atomic orbit with a laser allows researchers to take femtosecond-scale “movies” of molecules in motion.
Molecules are in constant motion as electrons swarm around inside atoms, slightly flexing the atomic bonds and shifting the molecule’s shape. Using standard tools found in physical chemistry labs, physicist Cosmin Blaga from Ohio State University and his colleagues have executed a technique to take rapid snapshots of molecules in motion, published last week (March 7) in Nature.
The Subcellular World Revealed, 1945
The first electron microscope to peer into an intact cell ushers in the new field of cell biology.
Belgian biologist Albert Claude, working at The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now The Rockefeller University) in the 1930s, was attempting to isolate a cancer-causing agent from chicken tumors when he noticed that the supernatants of lysed cells contained a strange aggregate, which appeared to be composed of large numbers of small particles with unusually high amounts of RNA. Claude named the mysterious particles “microsomes” and hypothesized in a 1943 Science paper that they “may be endowed with the property of self-duplication.” But because microsomes were too small and highly refractive to be observed using traditional light microscopy and staining techniques, Claude was unable to study them in further detail.
Luckily, Claude’s Science publication came to the attention of microscopy specialist Ernest Fullam, who operated one of the few electron microscopes in the country for a chemical company in New York City. Fullam’s superiors were eager to test out the biological applications of their powerful new instrument–which until then had been used mainly for military research–and encouraged him to collaborate with Claude during his after-work hours.
Using a new culture technique developed by Claude’s Rockefeller colleague, Keith Porter, the team prepared chicken fibroblasts that were stretched thin enough to be penetrated by the microscope’s electron beam, but that were not distorted or greatly altered by the process. In 1945 the trio published a description of their technique along with the first electron micrograph of an intact cell in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, shown here.