Specialist microscope allows scientists to make one-molecule measurements

A group of researchers and students from the University of Sheffield has designed and constructed a single-molecule specialist microscope, and shared the build instructions to help make this system available to several laboratories worldwide.

Called the smfBox, the microscope can perform single-molecule measurements, enabling investigators to look at a single molecule at a time instead of producing an average result from bulk samples. The microscope operates just as well as other instruments available in the market.

At present, this single-molecule technique is only available at a handful of specialist laboratories across the world because of the price of commercially available microscopes.

The researchers have recently published an article in the Nature Communications journal on November 6th, 2020, which gives the entire build instructions and software required to run the microscope and to help make this single-molecule technique accessible to laboratories over the world.

The interdisciplinary group spanning the Departments of Chemistry and Physics at the University of Sheffield and the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, spent a comparatively modest £40,000 to construct a piece of kit that would generally cost about £400,000 to purchase.

The microscope was constructed keeping simplicity in mind so that scientists focused on biological issues can utilize it with minimal training, and the lasers have been protected in such a way that it can be employed in standard lighting conditions, and is no more harmful than a CD player.

We wanted to democratize single-use molecule measurements to make this method available for many labs, not just a few labs throughout the world. This work takes what was a very expensive, specialist piece of kit, and gives every lab the blueprint and software to build it for them, at a fraction of the cost.”

Dr Tim Craggs, Study Lead Academic University of Sheffield

Dr Tim Craggs continued, “Many medical diagnostics are moving towards increased sensitivity, and there is nothing more sensitive than detecting single molecules. In fact, many new COVID tests currently under development work at this level. This instrument is a good starting point for further development towards new medical diagnostics.”

The original smfBox microscope was developed by a group of academics and undergraduate students from the University of Sheffield.

This project was an excellent opportunity to work with researchers at all levels, from undergraduates to scientists in national facilities. Between biophysicists and engineers, we have created a new and accessible platform to do some cutting edge science without breaking the bank. We are already starting to do some great work with this microscope ourselves, but I am excited to see what it will do in the hands of other labs who have already begun to build their own.”

Ben Ambrose, PhD, Study Lead, University of Sheffield

At the University of Sheffield, the Craggs Laboratory has already employed the smfBox equipment in its research to study the underlying biological processes, like the detection of DNA damage, where a better interpretation in this area may result in better treatments for various diseases including cancer.

Source:
Journal reference:

Ambrose, B., et al. (2020) The smfBox is an open-source platform for single-molecule FRET. Nature Communications. doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19468-4.

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