Resolution revolution for UK research

20th Feb 2013

Research in the UK is to benefit from a £25.5M cash injection to boost the resolution revolution taking place in microscope technology.

Three of the UK's research councils – the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – have invested £2.4M, £20.1M and £2M respectively, to establish 17 microscopy platforms that will bring about ground breaking advances in biological and biomedical research. 

Many of the initiatives funded combine different and sometimes entirely new microscopy techniques to answer crucial questions about biological processes. The revolution in microscopy builds dramatically on the previous limits of electron and light (optical) microscopy. Electron microscopy has very high resolution but cannot be used to image living cells or organisms. Traditional light microscopy can look at living materials but has far lower resolution.

The new generation of imaging techniques are now able to greatly increase the resolution - sometimes to close to molecular level - when studying an intact and living cell. These structures are some of the smallest things that scientists have been able to visualise. For example, a cell membrane is about 6-10 nanometres (a nanometre is 1 millionth of a millimetre).

As well as increasing the magnification, researchers are now able to study live biological processes as they are taking place at fractions of a second. Being able to visualise these tiny biological structures, such as the proteins involved in cell function and the biological and chemical processes in which they are involved, will allow researchers to understand more about what causes disease.

Professor Steve Hill, who chaired the expert panel which assessed the proposals, said: "Microscopy is one of the most important tools scientists have for discovery-based research but the high costs associated with this technology are often a barrier to expansion. This funding is crucial to help the UK capitalise on the latest technologies and maintain its internationally leading position in biological and biomedical research.

"This type of microscopy relies on scientists in very different disciplines coming together to solve very specific imaging problems. All seventeen projects were able to demonstrate extremely strong partnerships between biologists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, engineers, technologists and equipment manufacturers." 

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said: "These substantial funding awards will bring together the UK's world-class research base and industry to keep our life sciences sector at the forefront of discovery. Through exploring innovative new uses for microscopy they will improve our understanding of disease and ultimately deliver benefits for patients."

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