Seeing more deeply into nanomaterials

New 3D imaging tool reveals engineered and self-assembled nanoparticle lattices with highest resolution yet—7nm—about 1/100,000 of the width of a human hair

From designing new biomaterials to novel photonic devices, new materials built through a process called bottom-up nanofabrication, or self-assembly, are opening up pathways to new technologies with properties tuned at the nanoscale. However, to fully unlock the potential of these new materials, researchers need to “see” into their tiny creations so that they can control the design and fabrication in order to enable the material’s desired properties.

This has been a complex challenge that researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and Columbia University have overcome for the first time, imaging the inside of a novel material self-assembled from nanoparticles with seven nanometer resolution, about 1/100,000 of the width of a human hair. In a new paper published on April 7, 2022 in Science, the researchers showcase the power of their new high-resolution x-ray imaging technique to reveal the inner structure of the nanomaterial. 

The team designed the new nanomaterial using DNA as a programmable construction material, which enables them to create novel engineered materials for catalysis, optics, and extreme environments. During the creation process of these materials, the different building blocks made of DNA and nanoparticles shift into place on their own based on a defined “blueprint”—called a template—designed by the researchers. However, to image and exploit these tiny structures with x-rays, they needed to convert them into inorganic materials that could withstand x-rays while providing useful functionality. For the first time, the researchers could see the details, including the imperfections within their newly arranged nanomaterials.

Read more on the BNL website

Image: An artist’s impression of how the researchers used x-ray tomography as a magnifying lens to see into the inner structure of nanomaterials

Safely studying dangerous infections just got a lot easier

An extremely fast new 3D imaging method can show how cells respond to infection and to possible treatments

To combat a pandemic, science needs to move quickly. With safe and effective vaccines now widely available and a handful of promising COVID-19 treatments coming soon, there’s no doubt that many aspects of biological research have been successfully accelerated in the past two years.

Now, researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Heidelberg University in Germany have cranked up the speed of imaging infected cells using soft X-ray tomography, a microscopic imaging technique that can generate incredibly detailed, three-dimensional scans.

Their approach takes mere minutes to gather data that would require weeks of prep and analysis with other methods, giving scientists an easy way to quickly examine how our cells’ internal machinery responds to SARS-CoV-2, or other pathogens, as well as how the cells respond to drugs designed to treat the infection.

“Prior to our imaging technique, if one wanted to know what was going on inside a cell, and to learn what changes had occurred upon an infection, they’d have to go through the process of fixing, slicing, and staining the cells in order to analyze them by electron microscopy. With all the steps involved, it would take weeks to get the answer. We can do it in a day,” said project co-lead Carolyn Larabell, a Berkeley Lab faculty scientist in the Biosciences Area. “So, it really speeds up the process of examining cells, the consequences to infection, and the consequences of treating a patient with a drug that may or may not cure or prevent the disease.”

Taking cellular freeze frames

Larabell is a professor of anatomy at UC San Francisco and director of the National Center for X-Ray Tomography, a facility based at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS). The facility’s staff developed soft X-ray tomography (SXT) in the early 2000s to fill in the gaps left by other cellular imaging techniques. They currently offer the SXT to investigators worldwide and continue to refine the approach. As part of a study published in Cell Reports Methods late last year, she and three colleagues performed SXT on human lung cell samples prepared by their colleagues at Heidelberg University and the German Center for Infection Research.

Read more on the Berkeley Lab website

Image: Digital images of cells infected with SARS-CoV-2, created from soft X-ray tomography taken of chemically fixed cells at the Advanced Light Source

Credit: Loconte et al./Berkeley Lab