The Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2014 was awarded to the scientists who developed stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy, or STORM for short. But what does all of that even mean?
STORM is a type of microscopy that enables the visualisation of structures in, for example, animal or bacterial cells with resolutions up to ten times better than when using a conventional microscope. Think about the difference between the camera phone you had ten years ago and the camera on modern day smart phones! The image below demonstrates this difference in resolution when imaging biological samples.
The techniques works by exploiting fluorescent dyes (molecules that give out light) that are able to blink on and off. After attaching the dye specifically to one cellular component, a video can be taken of the dyes stochastically (randomly) blinking. This video is then fed to a computer program that isolates each molecule in each frame before finally reconstructing a super-resolution image, as shown below.
But so what?!? Why is this so much better than the other techniques out there? It’s because optical microscopy doesn’t damage a sample! The other ways of imaging at this resolution (such as electron microscopy or near-field microscopy) can damage the sample or be operationally difficult. STORM can be used in a way that doesn’t damage a sample AND is easy to operate – believe me, I’ve tried it!
“This sounds great! But what makes the dyes blink?” I hear you ask? Well actually no one knows… This is where I come in! My PhD project is based around making small changes to fluorescent molecules using synthetic chemistry to test how this affects the “STORM-ability” of the dyes and trying to pinpoint certain qualities required for blinking.
Maybe down the line there will be a Nobel Prize for me too! For now though, I will leave you with a couple of pictures of my colourful compounds 🙂