New microscope the atom of researchers’ eyes

29 October 2013

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The School of Biological Sciences has celebrated the launch of a state-of-the-art transmission electron microscope that will open new horizons for researchers. “The microscope is a game-changer,” says one of its delighted new users, associate professor of structural biology Alok Mitra. “It is the first of its kind in New Zealand, and it opens up avenues of research and teaching that were previously unavailable to us.”

A transmission electron microscope uses a beam of electrons to form an image of an ultra-thin sample – less than a few microns (a micron is one-millionth of a metre). The magnified image can show details at atomic level – a much higher resolution than an optical microscope can produce.

Associate Professor Mitra says that the $3.5 million microscope, known as a TF20, is extremely versatile and will be used in studies in life, material and chemical sciences. The high operating voltage of the microscope – some 200,000 volts – and its imaging device allow for electron tomography, a technique akin to a CT scan.

“The TF20 is likely to arouse interest throughout the entire biological and biomedical community in New Zealand,” he says. “Most research interests in life sciences intersect at a cellular level, and that’s where 3-D electron tomograms of entire cells and cell organelles can provide ground-breaking contributions.” In addition, researchers in material sciences will be able to combine their images with atomic compositional maps at nanometric scale.

Associate Professor Mitra expects that co-located companies in the Institute for Innovation in Biotechnology will be keen to pursue joint research and development ventures that utilise the TF20’s powers.

The microscope, launched on October 22, is housed on level one of the Thomas Building.