Electron Microscopy in Biological Science

Over the past century, the science of living things has been marked by a relentless push to understand the components of life at increasing small scales. The first biological studies embodied the earliest medical and agricultural advances from several millennia ago. A better understanding of organs and plant structures has subsequently provided insight into organisms.

The importance of cells as the basic building blocks of life came to be understood in the 19th century, with the application of microscopy. In the 1930s, the study of molecular biology began and this rapidly started providing insights into sub-cellular systems – notably Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953. In-depth analysis of the proteins which compose larger structures followed in the latter part of the 20th century.

The lines between biological science and other disciplines are quickly disappearing as biological frontiers are pushed to increasingly smaller scales. Biological phenomena which were once understood on the cellular level are now analyzed based on individual molecule interactions, which was previously understood to be the purview of chemistry.

Insight into the fundamental forces regulating those molecular interactions can be provided by physics. Other biological questions can be understood through materials science, informatics and mechanical engineering.

Techniques

  • Micro-arrays
  • NSOM/SNOM
  • Liquid-chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC/MS)
  • AFM/SPM
  • In-vitro fertilization
  • Electron Microscopy
  • Optical Microscopy

Environmental Challenges

The bio-science field has traditionally been relatively immune to environmental concerns because using chemistry-based analytical techniques and light microscopes did not require high levels of precision. However, the need for a stable environment increases as the scale of research gets increasingly smaller.

High resolution imaging techniques such as electron microscopy, AFM/SPM and NSOM/SNOM require vibration isolation systems, regardless of the field of research in which they are being used. When pushed to high enough resolution, even electron microscopes can become sensitive to vibrations. This sensitivity can increase when the microscope is outfitted with accessories that are popular among biologists, such as fluorescence, micro-manipulators, and micro-pipettes.

The measurement of biological samples is often frustrated by thermal fluctuation. Depending on the temperature, cells behave differently or even perish. Broad thermal fluctuations in the lab can negatively impact the accuracy and repeatability of measurements.

Neurological research, including electrophysiology, can be sensitive to electromagnetic interference (EMI) and so require a faraday cage. MRI machines often require EMI cancellation systems as they are sensitive to ambient EMI sources.

Positional Stability Comparison

Source: Laboratory of Henk Granzier, Departments of Physiology and Molecular and Cellular Biology, The University of Arizona.

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