University of Illinois researchers are giving a light answer to the heavy question of cell growth.
Led by electrical and computer engineering professor Gabriel Popescu, the research team developed a new imaging method called spatial light interference microscopy (SLIM) that can measure cell mass using two beams of light. Described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the SLIM technique offers new insight into the much-debated problem of whether cells grow at a constant rate or exponentially.
SLIM is extremely sensitive, quantitatively measuring mass with femtogram accuracy. By comparison, a micron-sized droplet of water weighs 1,000 femtograms. It can measure the growth of a single cell, and even mass transport within the cell. Yet, the technique is broadly applicable.
"A significant advantage over existing methods is that we can measure all types of cells - bacteria, mammalian cells, adherent cells, nonadherent cells, single cells and populations," said Mustafa Mir, a graduate student and a first author of the paper. "And all this while maintaining the sensitivity and the quantitative information that we get."
Unlike most other cell-imaging techniques, SLIM - a combination of phase-contrast microscopy and holography - does not need staining or any other special preparation. Because it is completely non-invasive, the researchers can study cells as they go about their natural functions. It uses white light and can be combined with more traditional microscopy techniques, such as fluorescence, to monitor cells as they grow.
"We were able to combine more traditional methods with our method because this is just an add-on module to a commercial microscope," Mir said. "Biologists can use all their old tricks and just add our module on top."