Resolution revolution for UK research
20 February 2013
Research in the UK is to benefit from a £25.5M cash injection to boost the resolution revolution taking place in microscope technology.
Retinal pigment epithelial cell in mitosis. Copyright: University of Dundee
Three of the UK's research councils – the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – have invested £2.4M, £20.1M and £2M respectively, to establish 17 microscopy platforms that will bring about ground breaking advances in biological and biomedical research.
Many of the initiatives funded combine different and sometimes entirely new microscopy techniques to answer crucial questions about biological processes. The revolution in microscopy builds dramatically on the previous limits of electron and light (optical) microscopy. Electron microscopy has very high resolution but cannot be used to image living cells or organisms. Traditional light microscopy can look at living materials but has far lower resolution.
The new generation of imaging techniques are now able to greatly increase the resolution - sometimes to close to molecular level - when studying an intact and living cell. These structures are some of the smallest things that scientists have been able to visualise. For example, a cell membrane is about 6-10 nanometres (a nanometre is 1 millionth of a millimetre).
As well as increasing the magnification, researchers are now able to study live biological processes as they are taking place at fractions of a second. Being able to visualise these tiny biological structures, such as the proteins involved in cell function and the biological and chemical processes in which they are involved, will allow researchers to understand more about what causes disease.
Professor Steve Hill, who chaired the expert panel which assessed the proposals, said: "Microscopy is one of the most important tools scientists have for discovery-based research but the high costs associated with this technology are often a barrier to expansion. This funding is crucial to help the UK capitalise on the latest technologies and maintain its internationally leading position in biological and biomedical research.
"This type of microscopy relies on scientists in very different disciplines coming together to solve very specific imaging problems. All seventeen projects were able to demonstrate extremely strong partnerships between biologists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, engineers, technologists and equipment manufacturers."
David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said: "These substantial funding awards will bring together the UK's world-class research base and industry to keep our life sciences sector at the forefront of discovery. Through exploring innovative new uses for microscopy they will improve our understanding of disease and ultimately deliver benefits for patients."
Notes to editors
A selection of images is available at: www.flickr.com/photos/next-gen-microscopy.
The cross-Council Next Generation Optical Microscopy initiative was launched in May 2012 and received 34 applications of a very high standard. An international panel of experts awarded funding to seventeen cutting edge microscopy projects in November 2012.
In the last few years, new techniques have emerged in microscope technology which exceed the previous limits on what researchers can see. Optical resolution had previously been limited to 200 nanometres (nm) but recent breakthroughs, particularly in fluorescent microscopy which uses the light from fluorescent molecules to break the 'diffraction limit', can achieve resolution of just tens of nanometres.
About the MRC
The Medical Research Council (MRC) has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. www.mrc.ac.uk
The MRC Centenary Timeline chronicles 100 years of life-changing discoveries and shows how our research has had a lasting influence on healthcare and wellbeing in the UK and globally, right up to the present day. www.centenary.mrc.ac.uk
About the EPSRC
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800M a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. www.epsrc.ac.uk
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £500M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.