November 17, 2009

Assistant Professor of Biology Julie Gates works with an older microscope in her lab


By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Assistant Professor of Biology Julie Gates studies how cells move and change shape as tissues and organs are formed in the developing embryos of fruit flies.

Her research requires examining through a microscope the tiny details of proteins, the cell workhorses, to determine how they carry out the functions of cells.

Those details soon will become clearer with the arrival of a new, laser-scanning confocal microscope, purchased recently with a $324,621 National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation grant.

"What this allows us to do is to look at fluorescence in a specific slice of the cell," Gates said. "It takes all the noise out, and you have a much clearer picture."

Furthering research
The confocal microscope, which will arrive on campus this week and be assembled Dec. 1, will be used by faculty and students in the biology and biomedical engineering departments to explore fundamental questions in developmental biology, neurobiology, genetics, virology, cell biology, evolutionary biology and biomimetics, Gates said. The confocal will be housed in the Imagining Center in the basement of the Biology Building. The biology department's microscopy specialist, Joe Moore, who helped with the grant application, will manage use of the confocal and all other equipment at the Imaging Center.

The grant was awarded primarily to assist Gates and six other biology and biomedical engineering professors with their research. The confocal microscope also will provide students with first-hand experience with one the most current imaging methods available in cell and molecular biology.

"The biggest advantage is it gives us a higher resolution image of the inside of cells," said Gates, who coordinated the grant application. "With a standard microscope, you can end up getting signals from outside the plane of focus you are interested in, which can make it difficult to analyze the image."

Many points of light
The confocal microscope encompasses four lasers, each with a different wave length, Gates explained. The lasers bounce light off a series of mirrors and focus the light on a small part of the sample being examined. The light coming off the sample bounces back through a pinhole, creating a clear image rather than the fuzzy image common in standard microscopes.

As with standard microscopes, scientists may isolate various proteins by adding fluorescent dyes to slices of a cell. The confocal microscope allows a researcher to tag four different proteins with different dyes and use lasers to see how the proteins work together, providing a more complete picture of how these proteins work together to make a cell function, Gates said.

Other professors named in the grant for the confocal microscope and their research projects are:

  • Matthew Heintzelman, an assistant professor of biology who studies the molecular architecture of gliding motility in single-celled organisms.
  • Leocadia Paliulus, an assistant professor of biology who examines how abnormalities occur as chromosomes are distributed into daughter cells during cell division.
  • Marie Pizzorno, an associate professor of biology who studies the mechanisms of infection and replication of the human cytomegalovirus.
  • Mark Haussmann, an assistant professor of biology who analyzes how free radicals damage DNA in seabirds.
  • Elizabeth Marin, an assistant professor of biology who examines how cells within the developing central nervous system of fruit flies are instructed to become a specific type of neuron.
  • Donna Ebenstein, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who examines the properties of spider web silk to determine how it might be used for strong, light-weight fabrics.

Contact: Division of Communications

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