Action-Packed Pittcon 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia
If you like to geek out on the latest laboratory equipment used in leading scientific research labs, chances are you’re very familiar with the annual Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, or Pittcon for short.
The 65th annual Pittcon Conference in Atlanta was an action-packed affair, offering laboratory science professionals a truly astounding number of events and resources. There were more than 2,000 technical presentations and more than 100 short courses available on topics ranging from analytical metrology, biomedical engineering, forensics, gas chromatography, laboratory-on-a-chip/microfluidics, polymers, proteomics, supercritical fluid, thermal analysis and more.
More than 850 companies exhibited their laboratory science product lines on the exhibition floor. And, new this year, each day about a dozen companies offered hands-on “Live Demo” product demonstrations on the exhibition floor so that attendees could learn expert techniques or their questions about laboratory equipment products answered directly from experts at the equipment manufacturer.
Nanoscopy Nobel Prize Innovations Celebrated at Pittcon 2016
This year’s conference celebrated the recent rapid advances in super-resolution microscopy.
What is super-resolution microscopy? To answer that let’s back through the microscope innovation timeline. Depending upon the historian that you speak with, conventional optical microscopes go back to 2000 B.C.E. if we count Chinese water-filled tube lenses or to 600 B.C.E. based on archaeological evidence of lenses manufactured by the Assyrians. What we think of today as the modern compound optical microscope dates back to Dutch spectacle-makers Hans and Zacharias Jansen in 1590 and Galileo in 1609.
It was long assumed — since microscopist Ernst Abbe made his prediction in the 1870s — that optical microscopy could not resolve imagery smaller than half the wavelength of light, which is 0.2 micrometers (or ~200 nm). Then the electron microscope, invented by Hans Busch in 1926, broke through the resolution constraints of optical microscope.
While the electron microscope is one of the all-time scientific breakthroughs in laboratory equipment, researchers, particularly organic chemists, longed for a method to view individual molecules in living organisms for purposes of visualizing things like virus transmission, prescription drug interactions, nerve-synapse interactions in the brain and more.
In the last few decades astute researchers were able to bypass the ~200 nm resolution limit, bringing visible light optical microscope resolutions into the ultra-high-resolution world of “nano” dimensions. How did they do it? Well first of all, it wasn’t easy. In fact the breakthrough was worthy of a Nobel Prize.
In 2014, the Nobel Prize committee awarded W. E. Moerner, Eric Betzig and Stefan Hell the Chemistry prize for their individual contributions to the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, which brings optical microscopy into the nano-dimension. Their collective discoveries make it possible to track individual molecules in live tissue, among other things.
In 2000, Stefan Hell introduced one of the breakthrough solutions for getting around the optical diffraction limit of ~200 nm. His approach, called stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy, uses two laser beams: one beam stimulates fluorescent molecules to glow, while the other beam using another process to cancels (turn off) the florescence outside a nanometer-sized volume. To view the wider area, this twin laser process is rapidly repeated across the sample.
Fellow Nobel Prize winners Eric Betzig and W. E. Moerner, working independent of each other, developed another method to break through the limitations of optical microscopes. They figured out how to turn on the fluorescence of individual molecules one at a time. By scanning the image multiple times, a composite image of the molecules can be created.
Bring on the Scientific Star Power: Pittcon Welcomes 2 Nobel Chemistry Prize-Winners
Attendees at this year’s Pittcon Conference were very lucky to attend talks by not one but two of the 2014 Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, W. E. Moerner and Eric Betzig.
W. E. Moerner, who serves as a Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Applied Physics at Stanford University, took the stage with the Wallace H. Coulter Lecture. His talk was entitled “How Optical Single-Molecule Detection in Solids Led to Super-Resolution Nanoscopy in Cells and Beyond.”
In Moerner’s view even as the latest technology in development opens up visualizing biological behavior in live cells in resolutions as small as 20-40 nm, there is much to be learned using current methods that can track 3D position and orientation of single molecules in thick cells.
Above: W. E. Moerner discusses the ability to switch single molecule emissions on and off, which enables imaging beyond the diffraction limit of visible light. Video courtesy of SPIE Photonics West.
Fellow Nobel Laureate Eric Betzig headed up the Waters Symposium with a talk titled “Imaging Life at High Spatiotemporal Resolution.” In the talk, Betzig outlines the challenges of observing molecules self-assemble to form sub-cellular structures. These include the 100-fold gap of resolution using conventional optical microscopy, the affect that glare can have on the specimens we observe and the heterogeneity of living tissue that creates warping and scattering of light, which interferes with high-resolution imaging.
Above Eric Betzig outlines challenges of super-resolution microscopy, non-diffracting beams and adaptive optics. Video courtesy of UC Berkeley.
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