NEW LASER-BASED MICROSCOPE AT WESTERN                                                                                       
Image: Ace O'vil and Sean O'Connell test drive Western's confocal microscope
Ace O'vil, left, a student in Western's pre-medicine program, takes a test drive on the university's newly acquired confocal microscope under the watchful eye of Sean O'Connell, assistant professor of biology at Western.

CULLOWHEE – Biology students at Western Carolina University will soon be getting up-close and personal views of the structure of cells, thanks to the recent acquisition of a confocal microscope made possible by $250,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Unlike traditional or electron microscopes, the confocal microscope uses lasers and computer technology to enable scientists to take multiple digital images of cells, which are then reconstructed in three-dimensional format through the same type of computer-generated imagery used for special effects by the motion picture industry.

“The scope is able to generate stacks of color cross-sections of biological samples – including plant or animal tissues or microbial cells – creating a dynamic viewable image that allows students to approach their study subjects from many angles,” said Sean O'Connell, assistant professor of biology at Western. “The sophisticated computer software with the scope also allows the students to make ‘movies' of the samples, giving them the ability to sort of ‘fly over and around' the samples.”

It's sort of the scientific equivalent of those 360-degree online virtual tours many real estate firms offer to prospective homebuyers, O'Connell said.

Confocal microscopy offers numerous advantages over traditional methods of examining cell structures, said Wesley Bonds , assistant professor of chemistry and physics, who is leading Western's efforts in the emerging fields of biotechnology and bioinformatics.

“Through a process called ‘optical sectioning,' the confocal microscope allows researchers to visualize samples without the need for destructive physical sectioning.” Bonds said. “The microscope slices through a cell optically instead of physically, which means we can put living cells and living things under the microscope and take digital movies of their cellular structure without harming them. That enables us to watch cells divide and move, and to see materials inside the cells.”

The confocal microscope complements the electron microscope, he said, because electron microscopes, while having greater magnification, require the user to alter the biological materials they will be studying.

Funding for the equipment was secured through the assistance of U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor.

Bonds and his students will be using the new microscope in on-going research to identify new genes and determine their location within the northern red oak tree, an effort that could lead to a better understanding of which genes cause faster wood growth or help trees survive drought and invasive insects. The research also could lead to the development of new forestry products and the formation of new jobs to create those products.

O'Connell and his students will use the equipment in microbiology research in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where they are examining microbial communities, tissue decomposition and bacterial biodiversity in the forested ecosystems and caves of the park. Some of the research is in the new field of forensic microbiology – an evolving crime investigation method that uses bacteria to determine how long a body may have been decomposing.

For more information about Western's programs in biology, call (828) 227-7244. For more information about Western's programs in chemistry and physics, call (828) 227-3666.

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Last modified: Monday, April 4, 2005
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