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New microscopy technique lets scientists see live viruses in their natural habitat


December 30, 2012

A 3D image of a rotavirus, constructed from data gathered using the new technique

A 3D image of a rotavirus, constructed from data gathered using the new technique

Traditionally, in order to view tiny biological structures such as viruses, they must first be removed from their natural habitats and frozen. While this certainly keeps them still for the microscope, it greatly limits what we can learn about them – it’s comparable to an ichthyologist only being able to study dead fish in a lab, instead of observing live ones in the ocean. Now, however, researchers at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute have devised a technique for observing live viruses in a liquid environment. It could have huge implications for the development of treatments for viral infections.

The team was led by assistant professors Deborah Kelly and Sarah McDonald.

They started by taking two silicon-nitride microchips that had windows etched into their centers, and then pressing them together until a gap measuring just 150 nanometers remained between them. That space was then filled with a liquid similar to that in which the rotavirus (the most common cause of severe diarrhea in infants and children) is normally found. The inside surfaces of the windows were then coated with antibodies.

When a rotavirus was subsequently injected into the chamber of liquid, the antibodies latched onto it and held it in place between the windows. A transmission electron microscope was then used to image the virus, producing results similar in quality to those obtained using a conventional freezing approach – in this case, however, the virus was still alive and in its natural medium.

The scientists now hope to use the technique to actually observe the rotavirus in action, to better understand how it uses an infiltrated host cell to create more viruses. By knowing more about this process, it’s possible that new approaches could be developed for fighting the virus, potentially saving countless young lives in the developing world.

Along with viruses, other microscopic structures could also be viewed using the technology – different fluids and “biological tethers” (the role played by the antibodies) simply might have to be used, depending on the target.

“What’s missing in the field of structural biology right now is dynamics – how things move in time,” said McDonald. “Debbie is developing technologies to bridge that gap, because that’s clearly the next big breakthrough that structural biology needs.”

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Lab on a Chip.

Source: Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Quite insightful. You have brought some really good points.

Ben Stewart

University press releases are very much like company ads on media. A lot of hype for a little achievement. BTW, speaking about alive viruses outside a cell is kind of an oxymoron (i.e. contradiction in terms). cheers

Ugo Sugo

3 mm silicon nitride Grids with central single windows (typically square) are not only not new they are decades old and sold by numerous suppliers of TEM supplies.

The technique here doubles the Grid thickness which distorts TEM image and reduces contrast.

The method would be improved by using diamond instead of silicon nitride. With lower atomic weight and much thinner windows diamond would substantially increase contrast and allow better resolution.


Now that was a 100% waste of time, effort and energy!! What's the supposed point of doing that? They're not seeing ANYTHING new there, because the viri need a live host cell in order to replicate. They need to review the work of Royal Rife and use energy broadcast at the resonant frequency of pathogens to just destroy them in large quantities. Why get all concerned about studying a pathogen past the point of finding out which frequency is needed to kill it? It makes no sense at all to me. There used to be videos of paramecia caudatum on line EXPLODING when they were overloaded with energy at their resonant frequency. It's been a while since I saw them last, and they were getting harder and harder to find back then. Maybe You Tube has them up again.


Expanded Viewpoint

I must agree with Ugo. Even some definitions make the cell the smallest unit of life. And as a sidenote, Gizmag has a great physicist reporter. I think you should consider getting an expert in each of the fields of biosciences, IT and engineering. Ben, it's nothing personal, just my opinion. Happy new year!



Royal Rife beat these guys by about ninety years with an optical microscope that allow visual observation while the virus was alive. one or two of these still exist.

He also developed the technology using modulated radio waves to destroy microbes without harming other cells in the body.

The "Rife" frequencies are available on line. With the proper equipment you hardly need a doctor.

I have been using the technology for about six years and have made my seventy plus years a lot more comfortable.

The frequencies I use foe the cold virus takes about thirty minutes.

This suppressed technology has continued to advance despite the drug companies' obstacles. This is the technology you should be reporting on.

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