FEMTOSECOND LASERS/BIOIMAGING: 'Molecular movie' technology promises life sciences discoveries

A powerful new imaging technology involving femtosecond laser pulses and bioluminescent proteins is fast enough to observe life processes as they happen at the molecular level, according to the researchers who devised it.1 "With this technology, we're going to be able to slow down the observation of living processes and understand the exact sequences of biochemical reactions," says Chong Fang, an assistant professor of chemistry at Oregon State University (OSU; Corvallis, OR) and leader of the research team, which also involves scientists at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, AB, Canada). "We believe this is the first time ever that you can really see chemistry in action inside a biosensor," he says.

The new approach offers sufficient speed to allow scientists to "see" what is happening at the molecular level and create whatever kind of sensor they want by rational design. This will improve the study of, for example, cell metabolism to nerve impulses, how a flu virus infects a person, or how a malignant tumor spreads.

The technology, for instance, can follow the proton transfer associated with the movement of calcium ions—one of the most basic aspects of almost all living systems and also one of the fastest. This movement of protons is integral to everything from respiration to cell metabolism and plant photosynthesis. Scientists will now be able to identify what is going on, one step at a time, and then use that knowledge to create customized biosensors for improved imaging of life processes.

Fang explains, "We're making molecular movies. And with this, we're going to be able to create sensors that answer some important, new questions in biophysics, biochemistry, materials science, and biomedical problems."

1. B. G. Oscar et al., Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 111, 28, 10191–10196 (2014); doi:10.1073/pnas.1403712111.

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