Powerful new microscope reveals inner workings of human cells with unprecedented clarity

Titan Krios cryo-electron microscope reveals the inner workings of life at the cellular level

Australia’s most advanced and powerful microscope, capable of visualizing down to the level of individual atoms, begins its working life today (Thursday 9 August).

The University of Wollongong’s (UOW) three-metre tall, one tonne FEI ThermoFisher Titan Krios cryo-electron microscope lets scientists see the inner workings of human cells with unprecedented clarity, and will enable new ways of understanding and curing diseases such as motor neurone disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer, as well as tackling health challenges like antimicrobial resistance.

The microscope will be the centerpiece of Molecular Horizons, UOW’s world-leading molecular and life sciences research facility, and part of a suite of transformative technology.

Senator the Hon Zed Seselja, Assistant Minister for Science, Jobs and Innovation, will commission the Titan Krios at a ceremony at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) campus in Lucas Heights.

UOW and ANSTO have come together to make available a facility to house the Titan Krios while its future home, the purpose-designed Molecular Horizons Building on UOW’s Wollongong campus, is built.

Thanks to the partnership between UOW and ANSTO, the Titan Krios will become operational and accessible to researchers almost two years before its final home is completed.

The microscope will be available not just to scientists from UOW and ANSTO, but to researchers from universities and other research institutions across Australia and around the world.

A cryogenic electron microscope, the Titan Krios uses electrons rather than light to look at molecules, firing a stream of high-energy electrons through a frozen sample, generating multiple two-dimensional images that scientists then convert to three-dimensional models of molecules, visualizing their nano-sized loops and chains.

Molecular Horizons Director Distinguished Professor Antoine van Oijen, an ARC Laureate Fellow and a molecular life scientist of world renown, said the Titan Krios was a game changer in the battle against disease.

“The driving philosophy of Molecular Horizons is to use visualization as an enabler for scientific discovery. Seeing is believing, after all,” Professor van Oijen said.

“Medical research has come a long way in understanding disease and finding cures. But most of the drugs we prescribe, in most cases very successfully, have been discovered basically by trial and error.

“One of the major challenges in the molecular life sciences is to understand the molecules and proteins involved in a disease at such a level of detail that we don’t have to find drugs by trial and error, but instead can design or engineer them. Almost like knowing exactly how the inside of a lock looks like so you can design the key instead of having to pick the lock with a paperclip.

“This is where the Titan Krios comes in. The molecular details it reveals are so small and precise it allows us to map out every nook and cranny of the surface of biological molecules such as proteins and DNA. Working in combination with the other technologies at Molecular Horizons it will unlock the door to an unprecedented understanding of how life works.”

UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings CBE said the commissioning of the Titan Krios was a significant step forward for Australian research and an exemplar of the benefits of taking a collaborative approach to scientific research.

“The revolutionary technology we are commissioning today will accelerate research and discovery. It has the power to change lives. The Titan Krios will allow us to see things we have never seen before,” Professor Wellings said.

“The University of Wollongong pursues a partnership approach to delivering its initiatives because we recognize that it is through collaboration that we can make a difference. Our partnerships bring together some of the best and brightest in the world to help solve global challenges.

“The University is appreciative of the long-standing partnership we have with ANSTO. Our organizations have shared commitments, particularly in investing in and providing access to technology to give researchers the tools to make significant health-related breakthroughs.”

ANSTO Chief Executive Officer Dr Adi Paterson said that the state-of-the-art microscope would be very welcome at its new, albeit temporary home.

“ANSTO is home to some of Australia’s leading science infrastructure, it is down the road from Wollongong and we have an excellent relationship with the University, so it made perfect sense to partner with them to offer their new technology a temporary home,” said Dr Paterson.

“Every day we use complementary nuclear, accelerator and synchrotron sciences to understand diseases and how to fight them, and it is wonderful that we are in a position to bring this new technology into the mix for a while. We have 1200 scientists and engineers at ANSTO who are very much looking forward to seeing the research outputs and possibilities that this microscope enables.”

Senator Seselja said the commissioning of the Titan Krios marked the beginning of an exciting period in scientific research in Australia.

“Collaboration between government, businesses, universities and research institutions is an important driver of innovation in healthcare. Australia is an innovative nation that has given the world cochlear implants, a cervical cancer vaccine and silicone hydrogel contact lenses,” Senator Seselja said.

“Technology such as the Titan Krios, together with the work of ANSTO and UOW, will provide benefits and opportunities for all Australians.”

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