Montana State University

Montana State's new microscopes advance understanding of microbes

January 13, 2012 -- MSU News Service

MSU microbiology graduate student Kristen Brileya works with the new confocal microscope in the Engineering Physical Sciences facility at the Bozeman campus. Microscopic images of very minute detail can be viewed on the various monitors attached to the microscope. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham. Click here to see images from the microscope.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
One of the nation's most advanced confocal scanning laser microscope arrays has finished its first semester of work at Montana State University and exceeded researchers' expectations in advancing our understanding of the role of bacteria in everything from infection to industrial corrosion to basic science.

The $900,000 grant-funded microscope array is housed and operated by MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering. Founded in 1990, the center is a world leader in the study of bacterial biofilms. Built by Leica, the microscope array is used primarily by the CBE to study the sticky bacterial colonies known as biofilms that attach to human tissue in wounds, the insides of pipelines and can gum up machinery, causing billions of dollars in damages and lost production.

There are only five other similarly equipped confocal microscope arrays in the U.S., and the CBE has the only one in the Northwest. The microscope array allows researchers to video live microbes in their natural conditions -- something that has been previously impossible.

Many other microscope systems require samples to be treated and dried before imaging, which kills cells and destroys the structure of biofilms. Click here to see images from the microscope.

"If you can imagine comparing microbial cells to the study of fish, it's like we have been putting fish in a tub of water kept at the wrong temperature, shining bursts of skin-burning light on them, and taking one picture every five minutes," said Betsey Pitts, research scientist and microscope facilities manager for the CBE. "Now, our 'fish' are at the water temperature they like, the detectors are so sensitive and the picture-taking so fast that they may not even notice, and we can make a real-time video of them interacting."

The $900,000 to fund the array is the largest equipment grant in the 21-year history of the CBE, but the benefits have already been shared with six academic departments in two colleges across MSU. Designated a "core facility" of the university's research enterprise, the array is available for use by students and faculty from across the university as well as by private industry.

"The CBE integrates activities in three areas that are often difficult for universities to bring together successfully: research, education and industry partnership," said Phil Stewart, CBE's director. "This microscope array provides benefits to each of those three areas."

In the past year, 88 graduate and undergraduate students were involved in projects at the CBE, many of them using the new microscope system for interdisciplinary research on chronic wounds, remediating contaminated soils, corrosion of industrial pipelines, and the use of wetlands for water treatment.

"We are giving students hands-on experience operating and doing research with this million-dollar piece of technology. Such student access is almost unheard of in higher education. It's definitely a very special thing and something that would be hard to find at many larger universities," Stewart said.

Chemical and biological engineering graduate student James Connolly used the new microscopes to look at biofilms found in soils and aquifers.

"The new confocal scopes allow me to view larger samples at a higher resolution and get a better idea of their geometry," Connolly said. "This is big for a lot of people who now have that much more flexibility in what can be imaged."

Elsewhere on campus, Bill Inskeep, professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, has used the new microscopes to investigate microbial mats pulled from Yellowstone's hot springs.

"We have a lot of the genomic and molecular data on these unusual microbes," Inskeep said. "What we are lacking is the three-dimensional sense of the mats and proof of where the microbes are in the mat."

With the confocal microscopes, Inskeep can see what is happening at each level of the microbial mat. Knowing which microbes are where in context with the chemical layers in the mat is important for understanding the micro-ecosystem. For example, if a certain species of microbes congregates at the top where there is more oxygen, it tells researchers something about that species.

"We can get a contextual and undisturbed sense of how organisms are configured in space," Inskeep said. "The images will give us both qualitative and quantitative data that translates to how a community works."

The new microscope array is also being utilized for industry-sponsored research. From its beginning 21 years ago, the CBE has fostered working relations with industry and currently has more than 30 companies inside and out of Montana sponsoring research at the center, including Colgate-Palmolive, which is interested in the cavity-causing biofilms commonly found on peoples' teeth.

"With the movie capacity on the new scopes, you don't have to be a scientist to see that there is gunk on your teeth and that a mouthwash washes it away," said Harsh Trivedi, senior technology associate at Colgate-Palmolive. "Now there is an unlimited capacity to see and show what is happening in a sample."

"These new microscopes will attract new projects and the results of those projects will attract new industrial members," Trivedi said.

The CBE purchased the microscopes with a $498,433 grant from the National Science Foundation and a complementary cost-sharing grant of $406,500 from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The total of the two awards were applied to the purchase of the two Leica SP5 Spectral Confocal Systems.

Contact: Betsey Pitts at 406-994-7813 or