Life’s Building Blocks

Nature

Illuminating Life’s Building Blocks

May 26, 2016

Magazine feature (online and in print):

“‘Every molecule is a machine, a little nano-machine,’ [biophysicist Jeorg Bewersdorf] says. Proteins, in particular, are complex molecules that twist, flex, open and shut in a multitude of ways to perform the reactions necessary for cell metabolism and growth, sending messages and providing structure. ‘That is what we are ultimately interested in understanding,’ says Bewersdorf: ‘How do all these little machines work together for the global function of the cell?’

Until scientists could observe that world, however, they had only the cloudiest idea of how to answer that question. Light microscopes were no help; beyond a certain magnification, diffraction causes light waves to spread out instead of converging to form an image. Any features closer together than about 200 nanometres, or about 40 times the width of a typical cell membrane, become a hopeless blur. Images made using electron microscopy can resolve fine structures — but they are static and almost impossible to obtain from a live cell…”

A feature on the technologies and methods helping researchers peer into the small structures of living cells.

skin cells
Credit: Zeiss microscopy via Flicker (CC BY 2.0)