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New microscope uses photonics to gain insights into ‘superbugs’

Scientists are building a new super-resolution microscope that uses laser light to study the inner workings and behaviours of superbugs to gain new insights into how they cause disease.

The microscope will allow scientists to peer into bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae at a molecular-scale resolution – showing up objects smaller than 10,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper.

A leading cause of bacterial pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis, Streptococcus pneumoniae are estimated to have caused around 335,000 deaths in children aged five years and under in 2015 worldwide.

Current technologies do not allow a resolution that enables thorough studies of bacterial properties that affect disease development. But now, this super-resolution microscope uses laser light to illuminate proteins at incredibly high resolutions, allowing scientists to gain new insights into what makes these potentially deadly bacteria so pathogenic.

Although electron microscopes can show minute detail at the atomic level, they cannot analyse live specimens: electrons can easily be deflected by molecules in the air, meaning any bacteria under inspection must be held in a vacuum. Therefore, super-resolution microscopes are superior for biological analysis.

Called the ‘NANO-scale Visualisation to understand Bacterial virulence and invasiveness - based on fluorescence NANOscopy and VIBrational microscopy’ (NanoVIB), the project will shed new light on how superbugs can cause disease, thereby providing the basis for the development of new antimicrobials to treat bacterial infections.

In a bid to understand how bacteria cause disease, the European Commission has granted this health consortium €5,635,529 via the Photonics Public Private Partnership to build this super-resolution microscope.

www.photonics21.org

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