Faster and more sensitive viewing of cell activity

Optical interferometry has been used to see better for astronomy to spot planets around stars. It has now been applied to seeing the activity and structure of living cells at the nanometer scale A research group in the MIT Spectroscopy Lab, led by postdoctoral associate Christopher Fang-Yen, is using optical interferometry to watch the activity of individual neurons. With this technique, Fang-Yen was able to detect small twitches of a few nanometers in nerve fibers and single neurons during an action potential, or electrical impulse.
The optical technique developed by the Spectroscopy Lab creates nanometer-scale images in less than a millisecond, and it’s not subject to photobleaching or phototoxicity.

Researchers at MIT’s George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Lab have been studying the changes in cells that are effected by disease like malaria. Michael Feld, director of the lab, hopes to use the technique to create three-dimensional images, illuminating even finer activities within living cells. The goal, says Feld, is to “study the structure of a living cell and the way it changes as circumstances change.”

John Sedat, professor of biochemistry at the University of California, in San Francisco, sees this optical imaging technique as a new perspective in an evolving field. “There’s a kind of miniature revolution taking place in microscopy,” he says. “This is an example of physics people coming into biology and bringing in a lot of new ways of seeing things.”