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UK funds new microscopes for life sciences research

20 Dec 2013

Optical techniques account for majority of advanced kit purchased with science council funding.

The UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is investing several million pounds in new optical microscopy instrumentation as it seeks to maintain the country’s position at the forefront of biological sciences research.

Part of a £10 million round of spending, the 20 grants issued by the BBSRC’s Advanced Life Sciences Research Technology initiative (ALERT13) to UK universities include ten major investments in optical kit and ten other related technologies.

The government body says that the round of spending represents its first major equipment purchasing grant scheme since 2007.

The new equipment will include several super-resolution microscopes, the UK's first two commercial fluorescence light sheet microscopes and an ultrafast laser source that will be used to study how ultraviolet light causes skin cancer and how medicines interact with biomolecules.

Other non-optical developments funded by the scheme include a new national hub for three-dimensional electron microscopy in Liverpool, an atomic force microscope for rapid imaging at the University of Sheffield and some high-throughput gene sequencing kit.

According to the BBSRC, the ALERT 13 scheme preferentially funded applications where the equipment would receive maximum use, with sharing between research groups encouraged.

That focus on collaboration also extends to industry and the public sector, in a bid to enhance the potential impact of the research.

BBRSC chief executive Jackie Hunter said: "This funding represents a significant investment in advanced equipment for UK scientists and underlines [our] commitment to making sure its research community has the best resources to continue to undertake world-leading research."

£1.5 million boost for Central Laser Facility
The UK’s Central Laser Facility (CLF), hosted next door to the Diamond synchrotron near Oxford, said that it received two grants from the BBSRC funding round, amounting to £1.5 million in total.

The first of those was awarded to Mike Towrie, to develop the CLF’s unique “LIFEtime” instrument, part of the ULTRA laser facility. It uses ultrafast sources to observe phenomena at time scales down to just 100 femtoseconds. Such processes could uncover crucial information about how bacteria and plants respond to light, and how DNA is damaged.

“Sometimes experiments have to be repeated to gather information at both fast and slow timescales and there is always the risk of irreversible damage to precious or sensitive samples,” Towrie explained.

“For something as delicate as a short DNA base or protein that is already being hit a hundred thousand times a second - which is necessary with some samples - you want to limit potential damage as much as possible. LIFEtime will enable reactions across both fast and slow timescales to be measured at the same time, saving time, money and of course the precious samples.”

The second grant, awarded to Marisa Martin-Fernandez, will pay for a STimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscope. This will add to the existing PALM/STORM super-resolution instruments already housed within the facility’s eight-microscope “OCTOPUS” instrumentation suite. It will enable microscopy with a lateral resolution of tens of nanometers.

One of the anticipated applications of that new equipment will be to help develop “nerve guidance conduits” (NGCs), which are used to bridge the gap in nerve injuries where the damage is so severe that nerves are unable to regrow.

“The new microscope will enable scientists to image at high resolution the interaction between the NGC and the nerve cells to optimise its structure and chemistry to produce more effective ‘bridges’,” explained the CLF.

This list of funds for new optical microscopy instrumentation is given below, while the full list of projects, including both optical and non-optical techniques, can be viewed here:

• A Super-Resolution Microscope for use by Plant Cell Biologists, N8 partners, Durham Scientists and Collaborators (£901,527.98): Durham University

• A Superresolution microscope for biological research in the multi-user Microscopy Facility [FILM] (£731,582.23): Imperial College, London

• A sharper light from gSTED microscopy on biological structure and molecular interactions (£702,044.58): CLF

• The Research Complex at Harwell LIFEtime Instrument (£828,604.08): CLF

• Multi-purpose instrument for advanced Raman spectroscopy techniques (£409,321.60): University of Manchester

• Confocal Laser Scanning Microscopy to Investigate Cellular Dynamics in Host-Pathogen Interactions (£364,726.66): University of Exeter

• Fluorescence Light Sheet Microscopy for Live 3D and 4D imaging (£247,189.21): University of Liverpool

• Multidisciplinary Super Resolution Microscopy Facility at Nottingham University (£735,267.44)

• Probing cell and tissue dynamics with lightsheet microscopy (£452,215.42): University of Oxford

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