A high-tech microscope is opening up new worlds to Cal Poly Pomona researchers, allowing them to see tiny structures and creatures in a different way.
Typical microscopes provide a two-dimensional view of the object being studied, which limits what the observer can see, but the biology department’s new confocal microscope generates a 3-D image that can be rotated and viewed from nearly any angle.
The device performs this feat by using laser beams to create dozens of high-contrast image “slices” that are then assembled by a computer into the final 3-D product.
“It can do so much that I haven’t even been able to use yet,” says Craig LaMunyon, the biology professor and department chair who helped secure the funding to purchase the microscope. That funding came from California State University’s Agricultural Research Institute and private donations. A 33 percent discount on the $270,000 machine from its manufacturer, Nikon, also was a great help, he says.
LaMunyon wants the microscope to be available as a resource to campus researchers from all disciplines. Currently, he and his students are studying something highly unusual — worm sperm.
That is to say, they’re delving into the genetics of sperm cells belonging to a microscopic nematode named C. elegans. LaMunyon wants to know how the sperm know when to begin crawling toward an egg (they don’t swim like human sperm).
“You don’t want them to activate too soon and use up their resources, but you don’t want them to activate too late and other sperm get to the egg first,” he says.
Unlocking the genetic secrets inside the worm’s sperm cells requires some laboratory wizardry. Before they can get a good look at what’s going on inside the worm’s cells, LaMunyon and his team need to make them glow by adding extra DNA that causes the worms to produce fluorescent molecules inside their bodies. Sometimes, the DNA takes and sometimes it doesn’t.
If it does take, they scoop up a single worm with a tiny, tiny needle, place it on a glass slide, and set it in the microscope, which bathes the worm in brilliant blue-green laser light. The laser causes those fluorescent molecules to glow, producing clear outlines of tiny cellular structures.
LaMunyon says his research has uncovered some unexpected findings, including similarities between genes in nematode sperm and the genes that cause human diseases like Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s.
“We’re making some really surprising discoveries about the genes that are involved,” he says. “We’re studying this really weird little cell and yet we’re making all these connections to human biology.”
(Above: An animation shows the confocal microscope scanning a sample.)