New imaging technique peers inside living cells

November 16, 2017 by Amanda Morris, Northwestern University
A schematic illustration of Shekhawat and Dravid's ultrasound bioprobe. Credit: Northwestern University

To undergo high-resolution imaging, cells often must be sliced and diced, dehydrated, painted with toxic stains, or embedded in resin. For cells, the result is certain death.

But if researchers can only view the inner workings of dead cells, they're only seeing part of the story. They cannot monitor living cells' dynamic real-time processes, such as metabolic reactions or responses to diseases or treatments.

"Sub-cellular components and structures have a profound influence on the behavior of the complex cellular machinery and systems biology," said Northwestern University's Gajendra Shekhawat. "However, unraveling the structures and components inside the cell is very challenging because they are so fragile."

Now Shekhawat and Vinayak P. Dravid, the Abraham Harris Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern Engineering, have developed a novel non-invasive imaging system that makes it possible to view the sub-cellular architecture of live cells at nanometer-scale resolution. Called Ultrasound Bioprobe, the technique combines ultrasound waves with atomic force microscopy, interacting with to determine the changes in their mechanical behavior.

Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the research was recently published in Science Advances. Shekhawat and Dravid served as the paper's co-corresponding authors. Shekhawat, a research associate professor in and engineering, was also the first author of the paper. The research was completed in the Northwestern University Atomic and Nanoscale Characterization Experimental (NUANCE) Center. NUANCE is the lead facility in the NSF-supported National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI) Program, which is headquartered at Northwestern and called the Soft and Hybrid Nanotechnology Experimental (SHyNE) Resource.

Despite recent advances in imaging, there is currently no single method that provides high-resolution and high-sensitivity images of living sub-cellular structures. Fluorescent and confocal microscopy, which are traditional methods for monitoring the biological interactions inside cells, suffer from poor spatial resolution and require invasive dyes or labels to enhance contrast and highlight structures within biological tissues. Light and acoustic wave imaging are unable to view structures smaller than a few hundred nanometers. Scanning probe microscopy can provide very high spatial resolution but can only identify surface structures rather than peer inside a cell. And while electron microscopy can view fine details at the sub-cellular level, it's a destructive technique that cannot be used for living .

"Many roadblocks have existed," said Dravid, who directs the NUANCE Center and the SHyNE Resource. "Characterization of the complex dynamics of biological processes, especially signal pathways at nanoscale resolution, has remained a challenge."

Shekhawat and Dravid's Ultrasound Bioprobe, however, bypasses these issues. Its ultrasound waves non-invasively image deeply buried intracellular features. And its probe provides high sensitivity and mechanical contrast of the scattered . The result? Non-destructive, remarkably high-contrast, nanoscale images of structures and components deep inside living tissues and cells.

"Using this non-invasive approach, we can monitor real-time imaging of the nanomechanical changes in complex biological systems," Shekhawat said. "This could provide clues for early diagnostics and potential pathways for developing therapeutic strategies."

Next, the team plans to expand its technique to diverse biomedical applications, such as the nanomechanics of soft tissues such as skin, enamels, and bones to probe their three-dimensional architecture down to nanoscale .

"A significant variation in cellular nanostructures and mechanics can be directly influenced by the cancer conditions of a cell," Dravid said. "So Ultrasound Bioprobe could also expand our fundamental understanding of the nanomechanics at play within cancer ."

Explore further: Nano World: Technique peers under surfaces

More information: Gajendra S. Shekhawat et al. Development of ultrasound bioprobe for biological imaging, Science Advances (2017). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701176

Related Stories

Nano World: Technique peers under surfaces

October 18, 2005

Scientists can now spot microscopic defects hidden inside any material and parasites within cells using a new imaging method that can peer through surfaces to see buried objects nanometers in size, experts told UPI's Nano ...

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.

Helium raises resolution of whole cell imaging

October 3, 2011

The ability to obtain an accurate three-dimensional image of an intact cell is critical for unraveling the mysteries of cellular structure and function. However, for many years, tiny structures buried deep inside cells have ...

Recommended for you

Researchers study interactions in molecules using AI

October 19, 2018

Researchers from the University of Luxembourg, Technische Universit├Ąt Berlin, and the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society have combined machine learning and quantum mechanics to predict the dynamics and atomic ...

Pushing the extra cold frontiers of superconducting science

October 18, 2018

Measuring the properties of superconducting materials in magnetic fields at close to absolute zero temperatures is difficult, but necessary to understand their quantum properties. How cold? Lower than 0.05 Kelvin (-272┬░C).


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.