New Microscope offers 3D Views, Enhances Research

Biology recently obtained a $200,000 Olympus Fluoview confocal, laser-scanning microscope. Typically reserved for Research I universities, the equipment/software package enables faculty and students to section thin layers of cells, tissues and their components to capture multi-color 3D, rotatable images and real-time video (a link to the latter is included at the end of the story).


“It was a coup that NMU was able to obtain this,” said Erich Ottem (Biology, right), who was instrumental in researching the confocal microscope.  “It increases our imaging capabilities so that we can begin to see and determine the specific cellular compartments a protein or other macromolecule may be localized in. That’s leaps and bounds above a traditional microscope, which offers a top-down, two-dimensional view of the surface of a cell. This expands our research capabilities immensely. Its applications also extend beyond physiology to ecology research. Some of the most detailed and striking images we generated during training were pollen grains provided by Alan Rebertus and live protozoa samples prepared by Mac Strand. Speaking for myself and I believe many of the faculty, this is a great investment Northern has made. I’m thrilled to be able to work with it.”

Lasers excite the fluorescent probes in a sample, which can be optically sectioned by a built-in scanner in the microscope. Ottem said the enhanced imaging should reveal more information about how brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) works. His research focuses on BDNF, a protein that allows certain types of nerve cells to continue to grow and survive. It is present in both the central and peripheral nervous systems and synthesized by muscle cells. Ottem is exploring how diminished or absent muscle production of BDNF may trigger processes that lead to many of the complications and pathology associated with neuromuscular diseases such as ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.


Ottem is quick to credit Michael Broadway (Arts and Sciences) for supporting the confocal microscope purchase and working out the financial arrangements.


“One of my goals as dean of the college is to promote scholarship and research,” said Broadway. “We’ve got some young faculty in the sciences engaged in some impressive research. What better way to support that than to give them the equipment they need to do their work effectively? This will allow them to publish in prestigious journals. When I was a young faculty member, I was given a small grant. Little did I know that seed would help to establish my career. Now it’s my turn to help our young faculty.”


In a nice show of interdisciplinary cooperation, Ray Ventre (English) supported Broadway’s request to apply some sequestered funds from English toward the investment. Ventre said, “My only two questions were, ‘Will it enhance faculty research? And will it create valuable opportunities for students?’ The answer to both was yes, so I was all for it.” As a sign of appreciation, the name Ray is affixed to the laser array system in the New Science room where the unit is housed. Psychology also contributed funds, as some of the department's faculty members will be using the device.


The confocal microscope arrived in November and an Olympus representative spent a few days on campus to supervise hands-on training. At least one student who watched a demonstration was overheard describing its capabilities as “awesome.”

The three smaller images were taken by NMU professors with the microscope. The first shows a three-dimensional confocal scan of pollen grains from Tilia americana, or the basswood tree. It was provided by Rebertus. In the second, provided by Ottem, a motorneuron in the spinal cord that innervates the gastrocnemius muscle was visualized by Fluorogold (green label) and excitatory synapses from the motor cortex were visualized by antibody labeling of a synaptic terminal protein, VGLUT1 (red label). The inset shows a magnified (100x) view of excitatory synapses on motorneuron.

The final image at left uses differential interference contrast imaging (DIC) combined with fluorescence microscopy to visualize the human glioblastoma cells cultured from a tumor removed from a patient at Marquette General Hospital. Imaging of tumor cells with this high resolution will allow the Upper Michigan Brain Tumor Center to explore new strategies to combat the growth and spread of malignant brain tumors. The sample was provided by Rob Winn (Biology) and graduate student Justine Pinskey.

Video captures can be viewed at NMU Confocal.



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Updated: December 1, 2011

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