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New microscope unlocks the cell's mysteries at the molecular level

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Among science’s "final frontiers," one of the most difficult to cross has been looking into the molecular-level workings of living cells. Now, a University of Massachusetts Amherst physicist has built an instrument to do just that and is beginning to uncover secrets such as how enzymes regulate various cell functions.

Jennifer Ross built a microscope she calls Single Molecule TIRF, for total internal reflection fluorescence, that is much brighter than commercially available instruments and has the remarkable ability to see and photograph single molecules in real time.

An image from the TIRF instrument from one of Ross and colleagues’ recent studies of the enzyme katanin was recently featured on the cover of Biophysical Journal, accompanying their article reporting that they have for the first time seen and recorded video of an enzyme cutting microtubules. This accomplishment is a key to understanding basic microtubule function and what goes wrong in diseases related to their malfunction.

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