A new microscope will use laser light to gain insight into superbugs

24 Nov 2021

Illustration of streptococcus pneumoniae. Image: © Tatiana Shepeleva/Stock.adobe.com

A project using the science of light to illuminate proteins at extremely high resolutions has been granted more than €5.6m in European funding.

Scientists are developing a new microscope that can study the inner workings of superbugs using the science of light, in order to understand exactly how they cause disease.

This super-resolution microscope will let researchers see objects smaller than 10,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper, and allow them to analyse bacteria at a molecular-scale resolution.

Photonics is the science and technology of light, and can involve creating, guiding, controlling, amplifying and detecting light.

This new microscope will use laser light to illuminate proteins at extremely high resolutions to find out more about bacteria.

One focus for the project will be the bacteria streptococcus pneumoniae, which can cause bacterial pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis. It is estimated to have caused around 335,000 deaths in children under five worldwide in 2015.

The European Commission has granted the project more than €5.6m via the Photonics Public Private Partnership.

The project is called ‘Nano-scale visualisation to understand bacterial virulence and invasiveness – based on fluorescence nanoscopy and vibrational microscopy’, or NanoVib. It is hoped NanoVib will help scientists understand how superbugs cause disease, in order to create new antimicrobials to treat infection.

Electron microscopes can also show minute detail at the atomic level, but they cannot analyse live specimens as electrons can be deflected by molecules in the air, requiring a vacuum environment.

“We expect our new microscope prototype to be a next-generation super-resolution system, making it possible to image cellular proteins marked with fluorescence emitters (fluorophores) with a 10-fold higher resolution than with any other fluorescence microscopy technique,” said project coordinator Prof Jerker Widengren.

“The goal of the NanoVib project is to retrieve information which is not within reach by any other microscopic or photonics-based technique. We will demonstrate how cellular nanoscale protein localisation patterns can be resolved, which will help us reveal bacterial disease mechanisms and are likely to be of considerable relevance for many other diseases.”

The NanoVib project is expected to be finished in 2024 and involves six organisations from Sweden, Germany and Switzerland.

Earlier this year, PhotonicLeap, a European collaborative project coordinated by the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork, was awarded more than €5m through the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme to develop new photonics technology.

Photonics21, the European technology platform for photonics that represents more than 3,000 members, estimates the European photonics industry to be worth €70bn.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic