A Comprehensive Cancer Center Designated by the National Cancer Institute

Pathways to Discovery: Spring 2011

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Integrated Microscopy Core Facility Brings Powerful Science into Focus

The best tools make for the best science.
—Vytas Bindokas, PhD

Just as microscopes revolutionized the field of biology by enabling scientists to see objects many times smaller than possible with the human eye, modern-day advanced optics are helping to solve new mysteries, including why some cancer cells behave differently than others.

Since 1997, The University of Chicago’s Integrated Microscopy Core Facility has been providing the research community with state-of-the-art microscopy instrumentation and image-analysis tools that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for individual laboratories to obtain on their own.

The facility caters to 140 laboratories at UChicago, and of its roughly 700 registered users, approximately 53% are from the UCCCC. Located primarily in the Knapp Center for Biomedical Discovery (KCBD) with a satellite location in Abbott Memorial Hall, the facility is accessible to users 24/7, with support staff available during normal business hours.

In January, the integrated microscopy facility announced the addition of three new major systems. These systems represent the best in corrected optics, with advanced features that allow for high speed and sensitivity.

The Marianas Nipkow system, a high-powered light microscope, was installed in the Abbott site. This confocal microscope uses five diode lasers and two state-of-the-art cameras that simultaneously capture two colors. The Marianas also has special features that allow scientists to correct for optical defects, such as artifacts and distortions, and includes a fast scanner to selectively bleach or photoactivate targets.

“This is a special microscope because it is computer controlled and does things on the fly. Because of its automation and powerful capabilities, it saves researchers time and money,” said Vytas Bindokas, PhD, facility co-technical director.

A system for whole-slide scanning of fluorescence and histology-labeled slides was recently added within the KCBD site. Researchers can simply drop off their slides, and staff will create digitized files that can be shared with colleagues around the world. Christine Labno, PhD, co-technical director, said this is especially valuable because it eliminates the need to recapture images at different magnifications. She also suggested that these new scanner-based techniques will change the way microscopy is performed.

Finally, the crown jewel in the facility is the Leica SP5-II-STED-CW system, the next generation in high-power optical microscopes. It is the only system on campus to offer stimulated emission depletion (STED) super-resolution light microscopy. “Super resolution is the next big push in microscopy,” said Dr. Bindokas. The new technology surpasses the century-old limit of diffraction, or the smallest spot on which you can focus, in real time.

With the new piece of equipment, Dr. Bindokas reported routine visualization at 50 nanometers
versus 200 nanometers on typical confocal systems. He said it would be nice to reach 10 nanometers to see how single, common proteins behave. “We’re getting close,” he said. “The best tools make for the best science.”

UCCCC members receive access to shared resources at subsidized rates. For more information on eligible core facilities, go to cancer.uchicago.edu/research/core-facilities.

One of the new additions to the Integrated Microscopy Core Facility, the Marianas Nipkow system is a high-powered light microscope that allows researchers to study living cells.