New Light Technique Developed to Observe Real-Time Cellular Activity on a Nanometric Scale

In any biological process, multiple interactions occurring at the molecular level make it impossible to observe live cells in real time, because light microscopes cannot focus light at scales of less than 350 nanometres. 

New breakthroughs in nanophotonics, however, will shortly enable us to visualise molecular processes at an optical resolution of ten nanometres, according to researcher María García-Parajo, head of the Bionanophotonics Laboratory at IBEC.

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This and other insights appear in an article entitled «Optical antennas focus in on biology», published on Tuesday, 1 April, in the online edition of the journal Nature Photonics (doi:10.1038/nphoton.2008.37).

The article looks at the potential implications of these new developments on the area of biology, a line of research in which García-Parajo’s group is currently at work.  Because of their potentially wide-ranging applications, the developments may well revolutionise research in biomedicine. “Our objective”, García-Parajo explains, “is to design and implement systems enabling us to study the structure and dynamics of molecules within their natural environments at the individual level and at the nanometric scale, so that we can eventually manipulate their biological functions.  A key part of our effort, therefore, is focused on the development of light microscopy. That’s what will help us to deepen our understanding of the biological processes driving most cellular functions and dynamics, processes that hold the key to the development of new strategies in the fight against cancer or to combat the AIDS virus or other infectious diseases”.

Nanoantennas are a type of advanced optical tool that can focus and increase optical radiation in a tiny area using an antenna of 70 to 100 nanometres in length, which acts to resonate and amplify the field of light.  The heightened intensity of the light at the end of the antenna makes cellular activity visible at a scale of ten nanometres. “The research we have done”, García-Parajo points out, “shows that the development of these systems is feasible under the laws of physics. The next step is to implement them in the field of biology”.

The research being done by theBionanophotonics Group at IBEC is focused on what is happening in the cell membrane at the molecular level.  Special attention is given to studying the receptors involved in pathogen recognition and cellular binding, as well as the mechanisms that control receptor clustering.

Optical nanoantennas are among the early results coming out of the Bio-Light-Touch project, which is part of the VI Framework Programme of the European Union.  Bio-Light-Touch falls under the category NEST Adventure, accorded to projects that are the most ambitious from a scientific viewpoint, but also run a higher level of risk.  The project’s objective is to develop a new type of light microscope that can not only visualise intermolecular dynamics in live cells, but also characterise their biochemical functions.  The project, led by María García-Parajo, is the work of a multidisciplinary team of physicists, biologists and technicians from universities, research centres and private enterprise, hailing from a variety of European countries including Spain, Austria and the Netherlands.