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New microscopy technique offers close-up, real-time view of cellular phenomena

For two decades, scientists have been pursuing a potential new way to treat bacterial infections, using naturally occurring proteins known as antimicrobial peptides (AMPs). Now, MIT scientists have recorded the first microscopic images showing the deadly effects of AMPs, most of which kill by poking holes in bacterial cell membranes.

Researchers in the laboratory of MIT Professor Angela Belcher modified an existing, extremely sensitive technique known as high-speed atomic force microscopy (AFM) to allow them to image the bacteria in real time. Their method, described in this Sunday’s online edition of Nature Nanotechnology, represents the first way to study living cells using high-resolution images recorded in rapid succession.

Using this type of high-speed AFM could allow scientists to study how cells respond to other drugs and to viral infection, says Belcher, the Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering and a member of the David H. Hoch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. The new work could also help researchers understand how some bacteria can become resistant to AMPs (none of which have been approved as drugs yet).

Atomic force microscopy, invented in 1986, is widely used to image nanoscale materials. Its resolution is similar to that of electron microscopy, but unlike electron microscopy, it does not require a vacuum and thus can be used with living samples. However, traditional AFM requires several minutes to produce one image, so it cannot record a sequence of rapidly occurring events.
 
 

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