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Multicolor STORM Images Cells

Photonics.com
Aug 2007
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Aug. 21, 2007 -- A colorful new palette of fluorescent tags, when combined with superresolution advances, promise to provide a better view of life at the molecular level by allowing proteins to be labeled and tracked simultaneously within cells with nanometer resolution.

XiaoweiZhuang.jpgHarvard University chemistry, chemical biology and physics professor Xiaowei Zhuang and her colleagues created an assortment of fluorescent probes that offer greater flexibility when using fluorescence microscopy techniques to pinpoint individual molecules inside cells.

Zhuang, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and her coworkers created one of these techniques, known as stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy (STORM).

Fluorescence microscopy is a crucial tool in molecular biology. The relatively noninvasive, optical imaging is rapid enough to allow researchers to spy on cellular processes as they occur. Fluorescent probes can label specific proteins or nucleic acids such as DNA and RNA.

Until fairly recently, the resolution of fluorescence microscopy was limited by the wavelength of light. Recent advances have broken this light barrier and allowed scientists to see structures clearly that are separated by less than the traditional limit of 200 nanometers (nm).

For example, STORM uses fluorescing probes that can be activated and deactivated to let researchers zero in on many of a cell's tiniest structures. The microscope collects a large number of images, each with a different subset of probes activated, then compiles them to generate a clear picture of how these tagged molecules are distributed within a cell.

Last year, Eric Betzig and Harald Hess, scientists at HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus, developed a technique called photoactivated localization microscopy (PALM), which also uses photoactivatable probes to create images with nanometer resolution. (See: Unemployed Scientists Create Ultrapowerful Microscope)

Until now, however, these techniques have lacked one of the most powerful features of fluorescence microscopy: The ability to track and distinguish multiple types of proteins simultaneously. Few suitable probes were available, meaning not more than two colors could be used at a time. Multiple colors were desired because they would allow researchers to color-code several proteins or genes in a cell and watch how they interact. That way, they could truly observe life in action.

Zhuang and her colleagues Mark Bates, Bo Huang, and Graham Dempsey have developed probes in nine new colors. Using these, they have shown that it's possible to image biological structures using multiple colors at once, with a resolution of about 20-30 nm -- about the diameter of a tiny polio virus.

"This is the first example of superresolution imaging in three colors," said Zhuang. "We also developed photoswitchable probes in many colors."

Photoswitching -- turning probes off and on with a pulse of light -- is what makes superresolution techniques like STORM possible. For a densely labeled sample, if all of the probes fluoresced simultaneously, the glow emitted by nearby probes would overlap, and resolution would be lost.
STORM.jpg
Multicolor STORM (stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy) image of microtubules (green) and clathrin-coated pits (red) in a mammalian cell. The cell is immunostained with primary antibodies against tubulin and clathrin and corresponding secondary antibodies labeled with photoswitchable fluorescent probes, and then imaged using STORM. (Image: Xiaowei Zhuang)
To avoid this problem, STORM uses fluorescing probes that can be turned off by a specific wavelength of light. Shine the light on the sample, and the field goes dark. Then a different wavelength of light is used to activate only a small subset of the probes. These probes can then be imaged, their locations determined, and switched off. Another subset is then activated. Ultimately, the repetitions result in a superhigh resolution, highly accurate image.

The specific probes that Zhuang's team developed are each made of two dyes. One, called the photoswitchable reporter, emits light. The other dye is called the activator because it helps to activate the photoswitchable reporter. By combining each of three light emitters with each of three activators, Zhuang's lab created nine colors.

"Fluorescent probes typically emit a relatively broad spectrum of light," she said. "If you have a visible light (wavelength) range of 400 nanometers to 700 nanometers, you cannot distinguish that many probes. But each of our probes has two parts that can be independently tuned -- the color of light that activates the probe, determined by the activator, and the color of light emitted, determined by the reporter.” That means researchers can combine colors just as artists do, creating blue, green and red, but also magenta, gold and brown, among others.

Zhuang and her colleagues used the new probes to simultaneously image microtubules -- long, cylindrical structures that help give a cell its structure -- and clathrin-coated pits on the surface of the cell, used to bring molecules from a cell's external environment inside the membrane. They attached one activator-reporter pair to the microtubules, and a different activator-reporter pair to clathrin.

When they imaged the labeled cells with STORM, the green filamentous structures of the microtubules and red spheres of clathrin-coated pits were revealed with remarkable clarity. In contrast, when the cells were imaged with traditional fluorescence microscopy, the densely packed filaments were unresolved in many regions of the cell and the pits showed little discernable shape.

From there, the team went on to show that three colors could be imaged at the same time. Using three of their new probes, they labeled three different types of DNA molecules and spread them on a microscope slide at a high density. Traditional microscopy generated only an indistinct glow from the tagged DNA, but STORM allowed the group to clearly see clusters of red, blue and green, each representing an individual molecule of DNA.

Although the research was not done in live cells, Zhuang said she is confident that the technology will one day be used in live-cell imaging, allowing the creation of color-coded cell images that catch cell actions with molecular-scale resolution.

"The method we use is ready for proteins on the surface of live cells," Zhuang said. "We are working on modifications to allow the dyes to enter a cell and be targeted to a specific protein sequence."

Another hurdle to imaging live cells in this way is the speed of the process. A STORM image is really a series of frames constructed from multiple on/off cycles. One can be created in several seconds to several minutes, but this is still too slow for many cellular processes. However, with some simple tweaks, Zhuang is confident that she could create a superresolution STORM image in one second.

"To get faster than that will take some development," she said, "But I think it's possible."
 
The research of Zhuang's group was published in the Aug. 16 edition of Science Express, an advanced online publication of the journal Science.

For more information, visit: www.hhmi.org


GLOSSARY
cell
1. A single unit in a device for changing radiant energy to electrical energy or for controlling current flow in a circuit. 2. A single unit in a device whose resistance varies with radiant energy. 3. A single unit of a battery, primary or secondary, for converting chemical energy into electrical energy. 4. A simple unit of storage in a computer. 5. A limited region of space. 6. Part of a lens barrel holding one or more lenses.
color
The attribute of visual experience that can be described as having quantitatively specifiable dimensions of hue, saturation, and brightness or lightness. The visual experience, not including aspects of extent (e.g., size, shape, texture, etc.) and duration (e.g., movement, flicker, etc.).
fluorescence microscopy
Observation of samples using excitation produced fluorescence. A sample is placed within the excitation laser and the plane of observation is scanned. Emitted photons from the sample are filtered by a long pass dichroic optic and are detected and recorded for digital image reproduction. 
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
probe
Acronym for profile resolution obtained by excitation. In its simplest form, probe involves the overlap of two counter-propagating laser pulses of appropriate wavelength, such that one pulse selectively populates a given excited state of the species of interest while the other measures the increase in absorption due to the increase in the degree of excitation.
technicolor
The color process that is used to form positive color cine films by dye transfer or imbibition, based on the use of separate matrices that superimpose yellow, magenta and cyan dye images on the final support.
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