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Microscope uses photonics to gain insights into ‘superbugs’

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Technology platform Photonics21 is building a super-resolution microscope that uses laser light to study the inner workings of superbugs.

Scientists say the NanoVIB microscope will allow users to look into bacteria, such as Streptococcus Pneumoniae, at a molecular-scale resolution, showing up objects smaller than 10,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper, to gain new insights into how they cause disease.

A leading cause of bacterial pneumonia, meningitis, and sepsis, Streptococcus Pneumoniae bacteria are estimated to have caused around 335,000 deaths in children aged five years and under in 2015 worldwide.

And although current technologies, such as electron microscopes, can show minute detail at the atomic level, they cannot analyse live specimens and do not allow a resolution that enables thorough studies of bacterial properties that affect disease development.

Project coordinator, Professor Jerker Widengren, said the super-resolution microscope uses laser light to illuminate proteins at incredibly high resolutions and is therefore better for biological analysis.

“We expect our new microscope prototype to be a next-generation super-resolution system, making it possible to image cellular proteins marked with fluorescence emitters (fluorophores) with a ten-fold higher resolution than with any other fluorescence microscopy technique.

“With the help of advanced laser, detector and microscopy technologies that will be developed in the project, super-resolution localisation patterns of specific proteins will be overlaid with light-scattering images, correlating these patterns with local structures and chemical conditions in the bacteria.

“Using laser light, this new microscope will show how bacterial proteins localise on the surface of bacteria, allowing scientists to study the interaction of the pathogen with immune and host cells.

“It works based on the so-called MINFLUX concept, where infrared laser light excites fluorophore-labelled molecules in a triangulated manner – leading to an increased resolution. The user can then fine-tune the microscopic imaging to previously unimaginable resolutions.

“MINFLUX microscopy will make it possible to resolve how certain pneumococcal surface proteins are distributed on the bacteria under different cell division stages, and whether these proteins are localised in such a way that specific, extra sensitive surface regions of the bacteria, a critical step of the cell division, are protected from immune activation.”

In a bid to understand how bacteria cause disease, the European Commission has granted the NanoVIB €5,635,529 via the Photonics Public Private Partnership to build this super-resolution microscope.

The project will conclude in 2024 and includes six partners from three countries: Kungliga Tekniska Hoegskolan (KTH), the coordinator, Karolinska Institutet (Sweden); Institut für Nanophotonik , Abberior Instruments GMBH, APE Angewandte Physik und Elektronik (Germany); and Pi Imaging Technology (Switzerland).

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