EUV spectral imaging tool can map cell composition in 3D

A mass-spectral imaging instrument developed at Colorado State University features an extreme ultraviolet (EUV) laser.

Researchers at Colorado State University (CSU; Fort Collins, CO) have developed a spectral imaging instrument that maps cellular composition in 3D at the nanoscale, enabling observation of how cells respond to new medications at a minute level. According to Dean Crick, a professor in CSU's Mycobacteria Research Laboratories who researches tuberculosis (an infectious respiratory disease) and was involved in the work, the instrument will allow him to examine cells at a level about 100 times more detailed than previously possible.

Related: Imaging spectrometers look at life in two ways

Carmen Menoni, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and her research partner Crick devised and built the spectral imaging system with help from students. The system will give researchers the ability to observe how well experimental drugs penetrate and are processed by cells as new medications are developed to combat disease.

The earlier generation of laser-based mass-spectral imaging could identify the chemical composition of a cell and could map its surface in two dimensions at the microscale, but could not chart cellular anatomy at the more detailed nanoscale and in 3D, Crick says. In addition to observing how cells respond to new drugs, he says, researchers could use the technology to identify the sources of pathogens propagated for bioterrorism. The instrument might also be used to investigate new ways to overcome antibiotic resistance among patients with surgical implants.

The instrument, which would cover the average dining room table, features mass-spectral imaging technology and an extreme ultraviolet (EUV) laser. Jorge Rocca, also a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, created the EUV laser attached to the spectrometer. Its beam is invisible to the human eye and is generated by an electrical current 20,000 times stronger than that of regular fluorescent tubes in ceiling lights, resulting in a tiny stream of plasma that is very hot and dense. The plasma acts as a gain medium for generating EUV laser pulses.

The laser may be focused to shoot into a cell sample. Each time the laser drills a tiny hole, miniscule charged particles, or ions, evaporate from the cell surface. These ions then may be separated and identified, allowing scientists to determine chemical composition. The microscopic shrapnel ejected from each hole allows scientists to chart the anatomy of a cell piece by piece, in 3D, at a scale never seen before, the scientists say.

The project was funded with $1 million from the National Institutes of Health as part of an award to the Rocky Mountain Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease Research. The optical equipment that focuses the laser beam was created by the Center for X-Ray Optics at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL; Berkeley, CA).

Full details of the work appear in the journal Nature Communications; for more information, please visit

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