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Improving microscopy by following the astronomers' guide star

A corrective strategy used by astronomers to sharpen images of celestial bodies can now help scientists see with more depth and clarity into the living brain of a mouse. Eric Betzig, a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus, will present his team's latest work using adaptive optics for biology at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. during a press conference on Thursday, Feb., 17, and a panel discussion on Friday, Feb. 18.

A key problem in microscopy is that when the light shines on a biological sample, such as a slice of brain tissue, light waves hit the cells and bounce off in different directions. The larger the piece of tissue, the more interesting and diverse its collection of parts, which makes the light waves bend and scatter in unpredictable ways.

For the past decade, researchers have been trying, with limited success, to sharpen blurred images of biological specimens using a method astronomers call adaptive optics. Recently, however, Betzig and postdoctoral researcher Na Ji, have made large strides toward improving resolution deep into tissue by combining a new approach to adaptive optics with an imaging technology called two photon fluorescence microscopy. Their results, published in 2009 in the journal Nature Methods, describe the first applications of adaptive optics to improve images of brain slices taken from mice.

Astronomers apply adaptive optics by shining a laser high in the atmosphere in the same direction as the star or other object they want to observe. The light returning from this so-called guide star gets distorted as it travels through the turbulent atmosphere back to the telescope. By using a tool called a wavefront sensor, astronomers can measure this distortion directly, and then use these measurements to deform a telescope mirror to cancel out the atmospheric aberrations. The correction gives a much

Contact: Andrea Widener
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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