Instrument combines atomic force microscope and FRET technologies.

Sanjeevi Sivasankar, Ph.D., reports the development of a prototype microscope that can be used to visualize proteins one at a time. He says that the immediate goal is to transform the microscope from its bulky, prototype stage to an instrument that’s novel, compact, easy to use, and can be manufactured at a competitive price.

The typical tools for observing and measuring proteins focus on tens of thousands of them at a time, providing data on the average molecule in a sample but not on a single molecule. Dr. Sivasankar, an Iowa State University assistant professor of physics and astronomy and an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, wanted to study them one at a time.

As a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Sivasankar decided to combine two single-molecule technologies that had been used separately: atomic force microscope technology that manipulates molecules and measures forces and fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) technology that observes single molecules at very high resolution.

Dr. Sivasankar brought the idea for an integrated, single-molecule instrument to Ames when he started at Iowa State and the Ames Laboratory in 2008. He’s since built a laboratory prototype and improved its measurement capabilities and efficiency.

Dr. Sivasankar’s research group continues to fine-tune the instrument and uses it for their ongoing research of single molecule biophysics. They are using the tool to study cadherins and DNA as well as semiconducting nanocrystals.

As he tests and proves the instrument, Dr. Sivasankar will begin working with Novascan Technologies of Ames to continue development. Earlier this year, he won a $120,075 grant from the Grow Iowa Values Fund, a state economic development program, to support commercialization of the microscope. University start-up funds and an award from the March of Dimes have also supported development of the microscope.

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