Boost to 3D imaging challenges global big league

Posted on August 13, 2013

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New technique may help unravel mystery of ‘Pandora’ virus

Cutaway of 3D image of a malaria infected red blood cell showing the malaria parasite (red) and its digestive vacuole (black

Cutaway 3D image of a malaria infected red blood cell showing the malaria parasite (red) and its digestive vacuole (black). Image: Scientific Reports – ‘Nature’

Developments in X-ray imaging led by La Trobe University scientists are now able to provide 3D views of the inside of a biological cell.

Three-dimensional images of the malaria parasite inside a human red blood cell were published in July in the Scientific Reports of the leading international science journal Nature.

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The images were made possible using ideas and technology created by the La Trobe scientists. The system they developed is now available for all scientists at the Australian Synchrotron in Clayton.

Lead author Dr Michael Jones, an Australian Research Council Super Science Fellow, says the system is a step toward better X-ray imaging of cells and viruses.

Largely unknown genetic material

Dr Jones at his Melbourne laboratory

Dr Jones at his Melbourne laboratory

‘For example’, he says, ‘it has the potential to help us understand the Pandora virus recently discovered in La Trobe’s lake system.

‘One of the largest viruses ever found and consisting largely of unknown genetic material, it is similar in size to the malaria parasite in the red blood cells which we have successfully imaged, in which you can actually see the parasite infection inside the cell.’

Dr Jones says the work is based on an approach pioneered over the last 15 years by a number of La Trobe University scientists working with the La Trobe physicist and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Keith Nugent.

Special place in X-ray science

‘This research, along with other advances recently published by the prestigious journal Science, highlights La Trobe’s pre-eminence at the frontier of X-ray science and our connections with world-leading scientific resources such as the X-ray facilities at Stanford University and our leadership roles at the Australian Synchrotron,’ says Professor Nugent.

La Trobe has a special place in X-ray science: Professor Nugent at the Australian Synchrotron.

La Trobe has a special place in X-ray science: Professor Nugent at the Australian Synchrotron.

‘It is no coincidence that the last two Australian Synchrotron directors are also professors at La Trobe University. La Trobe has a special place in the world of X-ray science,’ he says.

Critical to combatting disease

‘New ways of seeing play a critical role in trying to answer the big questions in health, agricultural and environmental research under La Trobe’s new Future Ready Research Focus Areas,’ says Professor Nugent.

‘This is essential work for the future of Australia as biomedical science moves ever closer to the physical, mathematical and computer sciences in combatting disease and understanding the complexity of biological processes.’

Dr Jones says the next challenge for his group, as for imaging scientists world-wide, is to complete a good image of a single protein.

‘At the moment you have to focus on millions of proteins and from that you can build up a generic image of a single protein. Proteins are extremely small and fragile and if you focus too much X-ray light on individual proteins you vaporize them,’ he says.

The campus lake in which the Pandora virus was discovered

The campus lake in which the Pandora virus was discovered

Other co-authors of the study include La Trobe physicists Dr Grant Van Riessen, Dr Brian Abbey and Professor Andrew Peele, currently serving as Director the Australian Synchrotron, as well as leading malaria researcher, former La Trobe biochemist Professor Leann Tilley, now at the University of Melbourne.– Ernest Raetz

The research is supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coherent X-ray Science (CXS)