A physicist is all set to design an ultra powerful microscope that can look at molecules and objects 20,000 times thinner than a human hair.

The new microscope, to be built within the next year, will allow much greater precision in identifying objects, such as certain cellular proteins, by letting scientists see them individually and watch their movement in real time.

Jennifer Ross, University of Massachusetts-Amherst (U-MA) physicist, is building this microscope to help scientists see molecules 100 times smaller than are visible using traditional light microscopy.

Ross is particularly interested in using the microscope to determine how a specialised protein called tubulin controls cell division.

Ross and Patricia Wadsworth, U-MA biologist, received a $684,000 National Institutes of Health grant to develop a microscope incorporating two cutting-edge fluorescence techniques that can observe and track single protein molecules.

U-MA is the second university in the US to use one of these, called Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy (STORM).

Ross says this will aid virtually all scientific disciplines to help answer important questions, from how neurons communicate with one another to which are the most efficient green energy sources.

Special fluorescent tags used with the new microscope will allow her to see individual molecules that control cell division - working in real time, in living cells.

Seeing individual tubulins in their normal environment will give her better insight into how processes they control can go awry. This could contribute to researchers’ understanding of how uncontrolled cell growth can lead to cancer, said an U-MA release.

Until now, observing individual proteins has involved isolating these proteins from the cells in which they operate. But observing a single molecule plucked out of its natural environment means normal interactions and behaviours are lost.

“That’s not how the cell really is,” says Ross.

More In: Technology | Sci-Tech