Imaging Life at High Spatiotemporal Resolution

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Mathematics and Physical Sciences lectures are open to the public and are held at the Gerald D. Fischbach Auditorium at the Simons Foundation headquarters in New York City. Tea is served prior to each lecture.

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As our understanding of biological systems has increased, so has the complexity of our questions and the need for more advanced optical tools to answer them. For example, there is a hundredfold gap between the resolution of conventional optical microscopy and the scale at which molecules self-assemble to form subcellular structures. Furthermore, as we attempt to peer more closely at the three-dimensional, dynamic complexity of living systems, the actinic glare of our microscopes can adversely influence the specimens we hope to study. Finally, the heterogeneity of living tissue can seriously impede our ability to image at high resolution, due to the resulting warping and scattering of light rays.

Eric Betzig will describe three areas focused on addressing these challenges: super-resolution microscopy for imaging specific proteins within cells at various lengths, scaling down to near-molecular resolution; plane illumination microscopy using non-diffracting optical lattices for noninvasive imaging of three-dimensional dynamics within live cells and embryos; and adaptive optics to recover optimal images from within large, optically heterogeneous specimens, such as zebrafish and the cortex of living mice.

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About the Speaker

Eric Betzig obtained a B.S. in physics at the California Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in applied physics at Cornell University. In 1988, he became a principal investigator at AT&T Bell Labs, where he extended his thesis work on near-field optical microscopy, the first method to break the diffraction barrier. By 1993, he held a world record for data-storage density and recorded the first super-resolution fluorescence images of cells as well as the first single molecule images at ambient temperature. Frustrated with technical limitations and declining standards as more jumped into the field, he quit science and, by 1996, was working for his father’s machine tool company. Commercial failure of the technologies he developed there left him unemployed in 2003 and looking for new directions. This search eventually culminated in his co-invention of the super-resolution technique PALM with his best friend and Bell Labs colleague Harald Hess. For this work, he was co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Since 2005, he has been a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, developing new optical imaging technologies for biology.

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