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From super to ultra-resolution microscopy

A new method pushes the frontier in imaging resolution, with the potential to distinguish individual features in single molecules

Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard

(Boston) -- Proteins mostly do not work in isolation but rather make up larger complexes like the molecular machines that enable cells to communicate with each other, move cargo around in their interiors or replicate their DNA. Our ability to observe and track each individual protein within these machines is crucial to our ultimate understanding of these processes. Yet, the advent of super-resolution microscopy that has allowed researchers to start visualizing closely positioned molecules or molecular complexes with 10-20 nanometer resolution is not powerful enough to distinguish individual molecular features within those densely packed complexes.

A team at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering led by Core Faculty member Peng Yin, Ph.D., has, for the first time, been able to tell apart features distanced only 5 nanometers from each other in a densely packed, single molecular structure and to achieve the so far highest resolution in optical microscopy. Reported on July 4 in a study in Nature Nanotechnology, the technology, also called "discrete molecular imaging" (DMI), enhances the team's DNA nanotechnology-powered super-resolution microscopy platform with an integrated set of new imaging methods.

Last year, the opportunity to enable researchers with inexpensive super-resolution microscopy using DNA-PAINT-based technologies led the Wyss Institute to launch its spin-off Ultivue Inc.

"The ultra-high resolution of DMI advances the DNA-PAINT platform one step further towards the vision of providing the ultimate view of biology. With this new power of resolution and the ability to focus on individual molecular features, DMI complements current structural biology methods like X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy. It opens up a way for researchers to study molecular conformations and heterogeneities in single multi-component complexes, and provides an easy, fast and multiplexed method for the structural analysis of many samples in parallel" said Peng Yin, who is also Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

DNA-PAINT technologies, developed by Yin and his team are based on the transient binding of two complementary short DNA strands, one being attached to the molecular target that the researchers aim to visualize and the other attached to a fluorescent dye. Repeated cycles of binding and unbinding create a very defined blinking behavior of the dye at the target site, which is highly programmable by the choice of DNA strands and has now been further exploited by the team's current work to achieve ultra-high resolution imaging.

"By further harnessing key aspects underlying the blinking conditions in our DNA-PAINT-based technologies and developing a novel method that compensates for tiny but extremely disruptive movements of the microscope stage that carries the samples, we managed to additionally boost the potential beyond what has been possible so far in super-resolution microscopy," said Mingjie Dai, who is the study's first author and a Graduate Student working with Yin.

In addition, the study was co-authored by Ralf Jungmann, Ph.D., a former Postdoctoral Fellow on Yin's team and now a Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany.

The Wyss Institute's scientists have benchmarked the ultra-high resolution of DMI using synthetic DNA nanostructures. Next, the researchers plan to apply the technology to actual biological complexes such as the protein complex that duplicates DNA in dividing cells or cell surface receptors binding their ligands.

"Peng Yin and his team have yet again broken through barriers never before possible by leveraging the power of programmable DNA, not for information storage, but create nanoscale `molecular instruments' that carry out defined tasks and readout what they analyze. This new advancement to their DNA-powered super-resolution imaging platform is an amazing feat that has the potential to uncover the inner workings of cells at the single molecule level using conventional microscopes that are available in common biology laboratories," said Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children's Hospital, and also Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

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PRESS CONTACT

Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University Benjamin Boettner, benjamin.boettner@wyss.harvard.edu, +1 917-913-8051

MULTIMEDIA CONTACT

Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University Seth Kroll, seth.kroll@wyss.harvard.edu, +1 617-432-7758

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University uses Nature's design principles to develop bioinspired materials and devices that will transform medicine and create a more sustainable world. Wyss researchers are developing innovative new engineering solutions for healthcare, energy, architecture, robotics, and manufacturing that are translated into commercial products and therapies through collaborations with clinical investigators, corporate alliances, and formation of new startups. The Wyss Institute creates transformative technological breakthroughs by engaging in high risk research, and crosses disciplinary and institutional barriers, working as an alliance that includes Harvard's Schools of Medicine, Engineering, Arts & Sciences and Design, and in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston Children's Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Boston University, Tufts University, Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, University of Zurich and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Harvard Medical School has more than 7,500 full-time faculty working in 11 academic departments located at the School's Boston campus or in one of 47 hospital-based clinical departments at 16 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutes. Those affiliates include Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Cambridge Health Alliance, Boston Children's Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Hebrew Senior Life, Joslin Diabetes Center, Judge Baker Children's Center, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital, Mount Auburn Hospital, Schepens Eye Research Institute, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and VA Boston Healthcare System.

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