Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Scientific Communities
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article

Watching Molecules ‘Dance’ in Real Time

Published: Friday, August 29, 2014
Last Updated: Friday, August 29, 2014
Bookmark and Share
Trapping light at the nanoscale enables real-time monitoring of individual molecules bending and flexing may aid in our understanding of how changes within a cell can lead to diseases such as cancer.

A new method which uses tightly confined light trapped between gold mirrors a billionth of a metre apart to watch molecules ‘dancing’ in real time could help researchers uncover many of the cell processes that are essential to all life, and how small changes to these processes can lead to diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have demonstrated how to use light to view individual molecules bending and flexing as they move through a model cell membrane, in order to better understand the inner workings of cells. Details are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The membrane is vital to the normal functioning of cells; keeping viruses out but allowing select molecules, such as drugs, to get through. This critical front line of cellular defence is made up of a layer of fatty lipids, just a few nanometres (one billionth of a metre) thick.

When the cell membrane is damaged however, unwanted invaders can march into the cell. Many degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy are believed to originate from damage to the cell membrane.

The ability to watch how individual lipid molecules interact with their environment can help researchers understand not only how these and other diseases behave at their earliest stages, but also many of the fundamental biological processes which are key to all life.

In order to view the behaviour of the cell membrane at the level of individual molecules, the Cambridge team, working with researchers from the University of Leeds, squeezed them into a tiny gap between  the mirrored gold facets of a nanoparticle sitting just above a flat gold surface.

Through highly precise control of the geometry of the nanostructures, and using Raman spectroscopy, an ultra-sensitive molecular identification technique, the light can be trapped between the mirrors, allowing the researchers to ‘fingerprint’ individual molecules. “It’s like having an extremely powerful magnifying glass made out of gold,” said Professor Jeremy Baumberg of the NanoPhotonics Centre at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research.

Analysing the colours of the light which is scattered by the mirrors allowed the different vibrations of each molecule to be seen within this intense optical field. “Probing such delicate biological samples with light allows us to watch these dancing molecules for hours without changing or destroying them,” said co-author Felix Benz. The molecules stand shoulder to shoulder like trees in a forest, while a few jitter around sideways.

By continuously observing the scattered light, individual molecules are seen moving in and out of the tiny gaps between the mirrors. Carefully analysis of the signatures from different parts of each molecule allowed any changes in the molecule shape to be observed, which helps to understand how their reaction sites can be uncovered when they are at work. Most excitingly the team says these flexing and bending motions are not expected to occur at the slow time scales of the experiment, allowing the researchers  to make videos of their progress.

“It is completely astonishing to watch the molecules change shape in real time,” said Richard Taylor, lead author of the paper.

The new insights from this work suggest ways to unveil processes which are essential to all life and understand how small changes to these processes can cause disease.

The research was funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the European Research Council.

Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,800+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More Than 4,000+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters

Sign In

Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Ancient Genome from Africa Sequenced for the First Time
DNA from 4,500-year-old Ethiopian skull reveals a huge migratory wave of West Eurasians into the Horn of Africa around 3,000 years ago had a genetic impact on modern populations right across the African continent.
Monday, October 19, 2015
Greater Understanding Of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
A new genetic study of over 200,000 women reveals the underlying mechanisms of polycystic ovary syndrome, as well as potential interventions.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Maintaining Healthy DNA Delays Menopause
An international study of nearly 70,000 women has identified more than forty regions of the human genome that are involved in governing at what age a woman goes through menopause.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
New Consortium to Develop and Study Early Stage Drugs
An innovative new Consortium will act as a ‘match-making’ service between pharmaceutical companies and researchers in Cambridge with the aim of developing and studying precision medicines for some of the most globally devastating diseases.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
MRSA Contamination Found in Supermarket Pork
A survey carried out earlier this year has found the first evidence of the ‘superbug’ bacteria Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) in sausages and minced pork obtained from supermarkets in the UK.
Monday, June 22, 2015
Expression of Certain Genes Changes with the Seasons
As the seasons change, so do the expression levels of many human genes, including ones involved in immune function, according to new research.
Thursday, May 14, 2015
Blood Markers Could Help Predict Outcome Of Infant Heart Surgery
New research suggests it may be possible to predict an infant’s progress following surgery for congenital heart disease by analysing a number of important small molecules in the blood.
Friday, May 08, 2015
Poisons, Plants and Palaeolithic Hunters
Dr Valentina Borgia to develop a technique for detecting residues of deadly substances on archaeological objects.
Saturday, April 11, 2015
‘Mini-Lungs’ Grown To Aid The Study Of Cystic Fibrosis
'Mini-lungs’ have been created using stem cells derived from skin cells of patients with cystic fibrosis.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Gene Discovery Provides Clues To How TB May Evade The Immune System
The largest genetic study of TB susceptibility to date has led to a potentially important new insight into how the pathogen manages to evade the immune system.
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Human Genome Includes 'Foreign' Genes Not From Our Ancestors
Many animals, including humans, acquired essential ‘foreign’ genes from microorganisms co-habiting their environment in ancient times, according to research published in the open access journal Genome Biology.
Monday, March 16, 2015
Order Matters: Sequence Of Genetic Mutations Determines How Cancer Behaves
The order in which genetic mutations are acquired determines how an individual cancer behaves, according to research from the University of Cambridge, published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Thursday, February 12, 2015
Artificially-intelligent Robot Scientist ‘Eve’ Could Boost Search for New Drugs
Eve, an artificially-intelligent ‘robot scientist’ could make drug discovery faster and much cheaper, say researchers writing in the Royal Society journal Interface.
Wednesday, February 04, 2015
Using Genome Sequencing to Track MRSA in Under-resourced Hospitals
Whole genome sequencing of MRSA from a hospital in Asia has demonstrated patterns of transmission in a resource-limited setting, where formal screening procedures are not feasible.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Amazing Feet Of Science: Researchers Sequence The Centipede Genome
What it lacks in genes, it certainly makes up for in legs: the genome of the humble centipede has been found to have around 15,000 genes – around 7,000 fewer than a human.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Scientific News
High Throughput Mass Spectrometry-Based Screening Assay Trends
Dr John Comley provides an insight into HT MS-based screening with a focus on future user requirements and preferences.
Revolutionary Technologies Developed to Improve Outcomes for Lung Cancer Patients
Breath test to detect lung cancer brings oxygen directly to the wound.
NIH Supports New Studies to Find Alzheimer’s Biomarkers in Down Syndrome
Initiative will track dementia onset, progress in Down syndrome volunteers.
Dementia Linked to Deficient DNA Repair
Mutant forms of breast cancer factor 1 (BRCA1) are associated with breast and ovarian cancers but according to new findings, in the brain the normal BRCA1 gene product may also be linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Using Drug-Susceptible Parasites to Fight Drug Resistance
Researchers at the University of Georgia have developed a model for evaluating a potential new strategy in the fight against drug-resistant diseases.
Boosting Breast Cancer Treatment
To more efficiently treat breast cancer, scientists have been researching molecules that selectively bind to cancer cells and deliver a substance that can kill the tumor cells, for several years.
New Gene Map Reveals Cancer’s Achilles’ Heel
Team of researchers switches off almost 18,000 genes
New Discovery Sheds Light on Disease Risk
Gaps between genes interact to influence the risk of acquiring disease.
How Cells ‘Climb’ to Build Fruit Fly Tracheas
Mipp1 protein helps cells sprout “fingers” for gripping.
Research Finding Could Lead to Targeted Therapies for IBD
Findings published online in Cell Reports.
Scroll Up
Scroll Down
Skyscraper Banner

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,800+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
4,000+ scientific videos