New ultrasound technique is first to image inside live cells

December 21, 2016 by Emma Lowry, University of Nottingham
New ultrasound technique is first to image inside live cells
Credit: University of Nottingham

Researchers at The University of Nottingham have developed a break-through technique that uses sound rather than light to see inside live cells, with potential application in stem-cell transplants and cancer diagnosis.

The new nanoscale ultrasound technique uses shorter-than-optical wavelengths of sound and could even rival the optical super-resolution techniques which won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

This new kind of sub-optical phonon (sound) imaging provides invaluable information about the structure, mechanical properties and behaviour of individual living at a scale not achieved before.

Researchers from the Optics and Photonics group in the Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham, are behind the discovery, which is published in the paper 'High resolution 3-D imaging of living cells with sub-optical wavelength phonons' in the journal Scientific Reports.

"People are most familiar with ultrasound as a way of looking inside the body—in the simplest terms we've engineered it to the point where it can look inside an individual cell. Nottingham is currently the only place in the world with this capability," said Professor Matt Clark, who contributed to the study.

In conventional optical microscopy, which uses (photons), the size of the smallest object you can see (or the resolution) is limited by the wavelength.

For biological specimens, the wavelength cannot go smaller than that of blue light because the energy carried on photons of light in the ultraviolet (and shorter wavelengths) is so high it can destroy the bonds that hold biological molecules together damaging the cells.

Optical super-resolution imaging also has distinct limitations in biological studies. This is because the fluorescent dyes it uses are often toxic and it requires huge amounts of light and time to observe and reconstruct an image which is damaging to cells.

Unlike light, sound does not have a high-energy payload. This has enabled the Nottingham researchers to use smaller wavelengths and see smaller things and get to higher resolutions without damaging the cell biology.

"A great thing is that, like ultrasound on the body, ultrasound in the cells causes no damage and requires no toxic chemicals to work. Because of this we can see inside cells that one day might be put back into the body, for instance as stem-cell transplants," adds Professor Clark.

Explore further: Imaging technique measures toxicity of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's proteins

More information: Fernando Pérez-Cota et al. High resolution 3D imaging of living cells with sub-optical wavelength phonons, Scientific Reports (2016). DOI: 10.1038/srep39326

Related Stories

Enhancing molecular imaging with light

July 25, 2016

In 2014, an international trio won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, a technique that made it possible to study molecular processes in living cells.

High definition diagnostic ultrasonics on the nanoscale

August 16, 2010

Scientists and Engineers at The University of Nottingham have built the world's smallest ultrasonic transducers capable of generating and detecting ultrasound. These revolutionary transducers which are orders of magnitude ...

Compound boosts contrast of photoacoustic images

September 21, 2016

An agent for enhancing the contrast of photoacoustic imaging—an emerging imaging modality that involves 'listening' to the sound generated by laser light—has been developed by A*STAR researchers.

Recommended for you

Fiber optic sensor measures tiny magnetic fields

September 19, 2018

Researchers have developed a light-based technique for measuring very weak magnetic fields, such as those produced when neurons fire in the brain. The inexpensive and compact sensors could offer an alternative to the magnetic ...

The hunt for leptoquarks is on

September 19, 2018

Matter is made of elementary particles, and the Standard Model of particle physics states that these particles occur in two families: leptons (such as electrons and neutrinos) and quarks (which make up protons and neutrons). ...

Researchers push the boundaries of optical microscopy

September 19, 2018

The field of optical microscopy research has developed rapidly in recent years. Thanks to the invention of a technique called super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, it has recently become possible to view even the smaller ...

Searching for errors in the quantum world

September 19, 2018

The theory of quantum mechanics is well supported by experiments. Now, however, a thought experiment by ETH physicists yields unexpected contradictions. These findings raise some fundamental questions—and they're polarising ...

Extremely small and fast: Laser ignites hot plasma

September 19, 2018

When light pulses from an extremely powerful laser system are fired onto material samples, the electric field of the light rips the electrons off the atomic nuclei. For fractions of a second, a plasma is created. The electrons ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.