Researchers at Cape Breton University are pretty tickled to realize that they and their students have rare access to a technology that was just awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Richard Henderson, Joachim Frank and Jacques Dubochet were selected for their pioneering work in visualizing biomolecules.

Over many years, they invented cryo-electron microscopy, a technique that takes accurate and detailed pictures of living things at atomic scales. It uses something called a cryogenic probe, which allows a biological sample to be flash frozen so that it can be viewed by a transmission electron microscope.

Equipment installed this week

As it happens, the only school with a cryo-probe east of Montreal is Cape Breton University. It was installed this week.

Judy MacInnis, the lead technician for the equipment and a lab instructor at CBU, said the technology has transformed research.

"A lot of biological samples have a high content of water, so that poses a difficulty when we go to freeze these biological samples. We get the formation of ice crystals (which) themselves will deflect the electron beam," she explained.

"The cryo-probe itself, the samples are immersed in liquid nitrogen, which works at -196 C. So we do a flash freeze and this eliminates the formation of ice crystals and we're able to put this into the instrument and get images of things that we haven't seen before."

molecules

Some of the 3D images of molecules that can be viewed using this technique. (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

Most recently, the cryo-probe technology was employed to crack the mystery of the Zika virus.

"They could actually follow the different stages of development of that by freezing it at different stages," said MacInnis. "The electron microscope has 10,000 times more magnification than a traditional microscope."

Seeing molecules

Stephanie MacQuarrie, an associate professor of organic chemistry and a principal investigator at CBU, called the technology "really amazing."

"We can scan down literally to carbon-carbon bond images and see how these molecules bond. There's nothing else that allows us to do that," she said.

The magnification of the transmission electron microscope is well beyond the capacity of the naked eye. 

Cryo-TEM supermicroscope

The Cryo-TEM supermicroscope was installed at Cape Breton University this week. (Cape Breton University)

"The thickness of a human hair is 500,000 angstroms — that's how we measure very, very small distances — and a carbon-carbon bond is 1.5 angstroms," said MacQuarrie. "What they said when they awarded the Nobel Prize was, 'It's like being able to see a human face on the moon from Earth.'"

MacQuarrie said a lot of the research being done at the university with the electron microscope and the cyro-probe could one day have important medical applications.

That's a boon to the school's science students. MacQuarrie said she doesn't believe there's another undergraduate research institution in Canada that has a cryogenic transmission electron microscope.

"I was telling my students they're literally the only undergraduate students, most likely in Canada, who have the chance to actually see the instrument, the technology that was awarded the Nobel Prize. And not only to see it, they'll have a chance to use it so they can be trained on it and get opportunities to do research on it. It's very, very cool."