Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

June 17, 1999

Microscope to open window on molecular world

University of Guelph researchers have landed $500,000 in federal funding for a state-of-the-art electron microscope that will open a window on the molecular workings of everything from ice cream to bacterial proteins to plant roots.

The researchers expect the new instrument to give them a clearer view of a range of structures than that afforded by other electron microscopes. Most important, the new cryo-transmission electron microscope (TEM) will allow scientists to study "frozen-hydrated" biological materials preserved in their natural state, a huge advance over earlier generations of electron microscopes.

Cooled by liquid nitrogen, the device "snap-freezes" specimens, essentially preserving samples in an ultra-thin layer of ice. "The beauty of cryo-TEM is that you don't need to dry the specimen at all," said Prof. George Harauz, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, who will lead the team of researchers. "You can image cells with their natural water content, or molecules directly in solution."

It is impossible to view biological samples au naturel with other transmission electron microscopes, Harauz said. Besides allowing a clear view of an unadulterated specimen, the new microscope uses a digital camera that will provide a cleaner image in less time, further preventing degradation caused by heating from the electron beam.

The only other microscope of this type in Canada is housed in a government-run laboratory for infectious diseases in Winnipeg and external users have restricted access.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) approved a $535,000 grant to buy the device. Other funding will come from the College of Biological Science, various departments and the office of the vice-president (research). The microscope will be purchased later this year and begin operating early in 2000. It will serve U of G faculty, students and research fellows and is expected to attract users from other universities and industry in Canada and abroad.

"This machine brings us up to the top in Canada among microscopy facilities," said Prof. Terry Beveridge, Department of Microbiology.

Among its uses by U of G researchers:

-- Harauz will view membrane proteins and structural changes wrought by, for example, multiple sclerosis.

-- Beveridge will study molecules found on the surface of bacteria. Besides investigating vaccines and alternative methods of delivering infection-fighting drugs, he has spent nearly two decades studying bacteria that live in metal-contaminated environments.

-- The Department of Botany will study the structure of mycorrhizas, which are mutualistic associations between fungi and the roots of most plants. It is one of only three major labs worldwide doing such research.

-- Food science researchers will examine the structure of ice cream. The microscope will give them a flash-frozen look at fats in ice cream and at the formation of ice crystals, which directly affect the product's shelf life. Only a handful of labs in the world study the structure of the frozen dessert.

-- Researchers in the Department of Physics can study formation patterns in thin films made of composite materials.

Contact: Prof. George Harauz, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics (519) 824-4120 Ext. 2535/6510

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs, (519) 824-4120 Ext. 3338

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