Microscopy technique garners top prize for young life scientists competition

For his novel research to obtain high-resolution images of biological cells and tissues, Mark Bates has been named the 2010 Grand Prize winner for the GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists. The annual competition, which includes a grand-prize award of $25,000, is supported by GE Healthcare and the journal Science, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a non-profit science society.

Bates' prize-winning essay describes his discovery of a new type of "optically switchable" fluorescent molecule, and how these molecules were used for high-resolution biological imaging. Bates and his colleagues at Harvard University developed a microscope capable of seeing cellular features as small as 25 nm in size, 10 times smaller than what is possible with a conventional light microscope. Since the images are obtained using light, which is relatively harmless to the sample, this approach may be used to create time-lapse movies of living specimens with an unprecedented level of detail.

"By enabling closer examination of biological specimens, the new imaging technique may have far-reaching implications for basic research and biotechnology," explained Bates. "Continued development may lead to applications such as improved clinical diagnoses that more accurately identify cancerous cells, or new technologies for nucleic acid sequencing."

Bates exploited the behavior of a particular red fluorescent dye molecule known as Cy5, whose fluorescent emission can be switched on and off with pulses of light, in order to obtain images well beyond the diffraction limit. The author refers to the new technique as stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy (STORM). "The idea behind our method is to label the sample with fluorescent molecular tags, and then look at each individual tag one at a time, determining its position very precisely," said Bates. "After many of the tag positions have been determined, a plot of their coordinates results in a 'super resolution' image of the sample, in which previously unobservable details may be seen."

Bates, also a regional winner from North America, will receive the award for his research in the field of molecular biology in Stockholm, Sweden, on Friday, December 10, during an award ceremony. He received the grand prize for his essay, "A New Approach to Fluorescence Microscopy," which is published in the December 3 issue of Science.

Born in Toronto, Canada, Bates received a B.Sc. degree in engineering physics from Queen's University, and an M.Sc. degree in physics from McGill University. He conducted his doctoral research at Harvard University, working under the guidance of Xiaowei Zhuang, where he studied the properties of photoswitchable fluorescent molecules and applied these results to develop a new method for high-resolution optical imaging. Bates is now a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Stefan Hell in Göttingen, Germany, where he is applying super-resolution fluorescence microscopy to study prokaryotic cell biology.

Each year since 1995, the GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists has recognized innovative young molecular biologists at an early stage of their careers. Some 65 regional winners and 16 grand-prize winners have so far received the award, honoring exceptional thesis work in the field of molecular biology.

Applicants for the 2010 GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists earned their Ph.D. degrees in 2009 and submitted a 1000-word essay based on their dissertations. Their essays were judged on the quality of research and the applicants' ability to articulate how their work would contribute to the field of molecular biology, which investigates biological processes in terms of the physical and chemical properties of molecules in a cell.

A judging panel selects the GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists grand prize winner and presents regional awards in four geographic regions: North America, Europe, Japan and all other countries. The regional winners receive $5,000 awards. In addition to the grand prize and regional winner from North America, the 2010 awards also recognize the following regional winners:

Ataman Sendoel (Europe): For his essay, "Is Death Without Oxygen as Sweet as Apoptosis?" Sendoel was born in Zurich, Switzerland. He studied medicine at the Universities of Zurich and Lausanne. After finishing medical school, he joined the MD-Ph.D. program of the University of Zurich. He conducted his Ph.D. work in the laboratory of Prof. Michael Hengartner, where he studied mechanisms of controlling programmed cell death in C. elegans. Sendoel is currently a postdoctoral fellow and continues to work on hypoxia responses in C. elegans.

Sendoel is looking at novel targets to treat melanoma. "My long-term plans are to continue to work on apoptosis in the context of tumor biology and … to bring new, intriguing scientific discoveries and new therapeutic strategies back to the bedside," he said.

Sakiko Honjoh (Japan): For her essay "Is Aging Necessary?" Honjoh was born in Yokohama, Japan. Inspired by a high school biology teacher, she decided to major in molecular biology and entered Kyoto University. Continuing on this track, Honjoh completed her Ph.D. in the laboratory of Eisuke Nishida at the Graduate School of Biostudies, Kyoto University, working on the signal transduction networks that regulate life span. She is continuing her work in the same lab, still trying to elucidate the molecular changes that occur during aging.

Honjoh identified several signaling genes which regulate the rate of aging and studied dietary restriction. "Restriction of food intake…is the most effective way to delay aging and extend life span in divergent species including mammals," she wrote. "Before I began to study aging, I thought aging is inevitable and inalterable, so it was a great surprise that the rate at which we age can be modified."

Melissa Fullwood (All other countries): For her essay, "Genome-wide Chromatin Loops Regulate Transcription." Fullwood was born and raised in Singapore. She graduated from Stanford University in 2005 and completed her Ph.D. in 2009 at the Genome Institute of Singapore under the auspices of the National University of Singapore Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering, where she was supervised by Prof. Yijun Ruan. In 2009, she was selected for the inaugural L'Oreal for Women in Science National Fellowships in Singapore. She is currently a Lee Kuan Yew Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore under the supervision of Shirish Shenolikar.

Fullwood was inspired to answer one or more of the "top 25" unanswered questions that were identified in a 2005 issue of Science. "My Ph.D. project demonstrated that there is an abundant, complex network of chromatin interaction between genes and non coding regions of the genome," she said. "Chromatin interactions could also be of clinical significance as biomarkers of diseases such as cancer; for example, through facilitating disease causing translocations, or aberrant regulation of oncogenes and tumor suppressors."

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Posted by Lee Mather

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