Video: 'Gentle' microscope captures tiny life in action

Microscopists have been able to peer deep into cells, thanks to fluorescent molecules that stick to cellular structures. But the powerful light sources—often lasers—required to activate the fluorescent molecules also burn them out and spark toxic chemical reactions inside cells. A team led by engineering physicist Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia, has now devised a gentler method, called lattice light-sheet microscopy, that can capture high-resolution 3D images. The approach is less destructive because it illuminates with a lattice, or grid, of light, spreading the energy hitting the specimen. And it’s typically faster than spinning disk confocal microscopy, one of the leading fluorescence microscopy methods. Thus, researchers can observe microscopic action, such as cell and molecular movements, for longer periods of time. Betzig, who shared this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a different technique that greatly increased microscope resolution, and his colleagues show off the capabilities of lattice light-sheet microscopy online today in Science. They follow individual proteins in clusters of stem cells, trace cellular migration in a developing fruit fly larva, and observe muscle contractions in a nematode embryo (see video, above), among other tasks. Betzig says he’s prouder of lattice light-sheet microscopy than he is of the work that earned him the Nobel Prize. “It’s like having a new baby.”

*Correction, 24 October, 1:52 p.m.: This item has been corrected. The original item stated that the video was of a protozoan. It is in fact a video of a nematode embryo.

(Video credit: Betzig Lab, HHMI)