Cells often employ dozens or even hundreds of different proteins and RNA molecules to get a complex job done. As a result, cellular job sites can resemble a busy construction site, with many different types of these tiny cellular workers coming and going. Today's methods typically only spot at most three or four types of these tiny workers simultaneously. But to truly understand complex cellular functions, it's important to be able to visualize most or all of those workers at once, said
"If you can see only a few things at a time, you are missing the big picture," Yin said.
Yin's team sought a way to take aerial views of job sites that could spot up to dozens of types of biomolecules that make up large cellular work crews.
To capture ultrasharp images of biomolecules, they had to overcome laws of physics that stymied microscopists for most of the last century. When two objects are closer than about 200 nanometers apart - about one five-hundredth the width of a human hair - they cannot be distinguished using a traditional light microscope: the viewer sees one blurry blob where in reality there are two objects.
Since the mid-1990s, scientists have developed several ways to overcome this problem using combinations of specialized optics, special fluorescent proteins or dyes that tag cellular components.
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