Bar Harbor, Maine -- The 4Pi Confocal Laser Scanning Microscope is the world's most advanced optical microscope--capable of revealing the nanostructure of genetic material within a cell in three dimensions. The first such instrument is now coming to the United States in 2005, thanks to a $732,624 National Science Foundation grant to a Maine interdisciplinary biophysical research program.
The Institute for Molecular Biophysics brings together expertise in biophysics and engineering at the University of Maine in Orono, molecular and cell biology at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute (MMCRI) in Scarborough, and genetics and genomics at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. IMB's goal: to explore the structure and function of genes and chromosomes within cells, in order to understand precisely how genes control both normal development and disease.
Once installed at The Jackson Laboratory, the 4Pi microscope will enable the IMB researchers to examine specific structures within a cell–such as a single gene on a chromosome–at a resolution four to seven times greater than previously possible.
"Astronomers have space-based telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope to understand the history and structure of the universe," comments IMB co-director Barbara Knowles of The Jackson Laboratory and the University of Maine. "Physicists have giant particle accelerators to isolate the fundamental elements of energy and matter. Now researchers in genetics and biology have an advanced tool to examine the very structure of the mouse, human and other genomes."
The 4Pi microscope is manufactured by Leica Microsystems in Mannheim, Germany, based on technology developed by Stefen Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. The "4Pi" designation refers to the unique way in which light is emitted.
"Imagine looking at a satellite image of your state of such high resolution that you can spot the local college football field," says IMB co-director Michael Grunze, who holds joint appointments with the University of Maine, The Jackson Laboratory and the University of Heidelberg in Germany. "Now, imagine being able to see the football itself, in 3D. The 4Pi represents a comparable increase in resolution, only on a nanoscale."
"In addition to applications involving imaging of genes and nuclear structure," says Kenneth A. Ault, MD, director of MMCRI, "our researchers are particularly interested in using this microscope to image large, multi-molecular structures migrating within and across the cell membrane. For example, a recent discovery at MMCRI indicates that controlling the migration of fibroblast growth factor can prevent reocclusion of coronary arteries after angioplasty. We are confident that this fruitful collaboration with the physicists in the IMB will reveal many as yet unsuspected discoveries of value to the medical community."
The National Science Foundation grant for the acquisition of the 4Pi also includes funding for a specialized microscopist, most likely a physicist, to analyze samples on the 4Pi. Grunze anticipates that researchers will be able to send or bring biological samples to the IMB for analysis. "I see biology moving towards specialized high-tech centers like the IMB, bringing in investigators from all over the world," he said.
Initial funding for the IMB was provided by the National Science Foundation's EPSCoR program.
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