Using Lasers to Peer Inside Cells


Researchers at MIT’s George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory have developed a new use for laser interferometry that allows 3D images of the internal structure of cells to be created in just 0.1 seconds. Michael Feld and his team use the change in refractive index of a laser beam passing through the cell to create a series of 2D maps.

The researchers made their measurements using a technique known as interferometry, in which a light wave passing through a cell is compared with a reference wave that doesn’t pass through it. A 2D image containing information about refractive index is thus obtained.

To create a 3D image, the researchers combined 100 two-dimensional images taken from different angles. The resulting images are essentially 3D maps of the refractive index of the cell’s organelles. The entire process took about 10 seconds, but the researchers recently reduced this time to 0.1 seconds.

One major result of this research is we can now see the internal structure of cells without modifying the cells themselves through fixing or adding dyes.


"When you fix the cells, you can’t look at their movements, and when you add external contrast agents you can never be sure that you haven’t somehow interfered with normal cellular function," said Badizadegan.

The current resolution of the new technique is about 500 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, but the team is working on improving the resolution. "We are confident that we can attain 150 nanometers, and perhaps higher resolution is possible," Feld said. "We expect this new technique to serve as a complement to electron microscopy, which has a resolution of approximately 10 nanometers."

Thanks to ScottY for the link.