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High-res images captured by spraying live bacteria across X-ray pulse

"You can study the full cycle of cellular processes, with each X-ray pulse providing a snapshot of the process you want to study," said researcher Tomas Ekeberg.

By
Brooks Hays

MENLO PARK, Calif., Feb. 11 (UPI) -- For the first time, scientists have captured X-ray portraits of living bacteria using techniques that allow high-resolution images of the inner structures and activities of biological particles.

Researchers working at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory accomplished the feat by spraying the bacteria -- cyanobacteria, a common blue-green algae -- as a gas stream via a gun-like aerosol device. The stream of bacteria is shot into the path of a rapid-fire X-ray pulse which, and as the millions of bacteria particles pass, detectors pick up diffraction patterns.

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These diffractions pick up and preserve details of the bacteria's inner workings, which are then used to reassemble 2-D portraits using high-tech computer models. Researchers say the same technique will eventually be able to render 3-D imagery of the living bacterial particles.

"We have developed a unique way to rapidly explore, sort and analyze samples, with the possibility of reaching higher resolutions than other study methods," researcher leader Janos Hajdu, a professor of biophysics at Uppsala University in Sweden, explained in a press release. "This could eventually be a complete game-changer."

The technique allows researchers to collect thousands of images at rapid speeds. Scientists believe the imaging strategy will eventually produce more detailed portraits -- capturing the resolution of molecules and atoms. The research is the first step, scientists say, in the path toward rendering detailed observations of biological processes and behaviors like viral infections, cell division, photosynthesis and more.

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"You can study the full cycle of cellular processes, with each X-ray pulse providing a snapshot of the process you want to study," said researcher Tomas Ekeberg, a biophysicist at Uppsala.

The latest results, published this week in the journal Nature, are the culmination of an experiment that began last year.

Though the new technique could be used to explore all types of biological materials, researchers are interested in further analyzing the machinery inside the cells of cyanobacteria -- specifically the internal photosynthesis processes responsible for some 40 percent of organic carbon in the natural world. The algae's innards play a major role in the planet's oxygen, carbon and nitrogen cycles.

"A better understanding of the structure and function of these cell organelles could benefit carbon-cycle research," study author Dirk Hasse said last year.

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