Just weeks after winning a Nobel Prize for his work in microscopy, Eric Betzig has done it again. He and his colleagues have developed a revolutionary new microscopy technique that allows scientists to observe living cellular processes at unprecedented speed and resolution.

It's called lattice sheet microscopy, a new imaging platform developed at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Advanced Imaging Center. By using sheets of light to scan cells, it allows biologists to visualize and animate 3D images of subcellular activity in real time — right down to the biomolecular level. And remarkably, it produces high-resolution images without causing damage to cells.

Writing in Popular Mechanics, Charles Q. Choi explains:

This new microscope, outlined today in the journal Science, builds on advances in what's called light-sheet microscopy, in which sheets of light scan the targets. Conventional light sheets are too thick to illuminate details smaller than cells, though. So Betzig and his colleagues used ultra-thin sheets as little as 250 nanometers (billionths of a meter) wide.

The new microscope can achieve resolutions of up to 230 nanometers and record at up to 1,000 frames per second, Betzig says. And crucially, the light sheets spread light energy in such a way to minimize damage to any single point in a specimen.

Scientists have used the new microscope to study embryonic development in nematodes and fruit flies, trace the pathways of nerve cells that form synapses in the brain, and follow the progress of proteins that clump together to cause disease.

In terms of the implications, Harvard cell biologist Tomas Kirchhausen put it this way: "This is a transformative technology. Everybody will now have to start using it. The data they can obtain with it will quickly replace many other instruments currently used in the field. I'm ready to sell my other microscopes on eBay and use this."

A single HeLa cell in metaphase, imaged by lattice light sheet microscope. Growing microtubule endpoints and tracks are color coded by growth phase lifetime. Caption and image: Betzig Lab, HHMI/Janelia Research Campus, Mimori-Kiyosue Lab, RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology.

And indeed, the microscope is being made available to other researchers.

Betzig and his colleagues aren't done yet. They want to advance their technology further by peering into tissues and organisms using deformable and adaptive optics — techniques that are currently in use in astronomy to overcome the visual interference caused by intervening matter.

Check out Choi's entire post. And read the entire study at Science: "Lattice Light Sheet Microscopy: Imaging Molecules, Cells, and Embryos at High Spatiotemporal Resolution". Supplementary info via HHMI News.