Triumph of the tiny

Wow! Here’s something amazing.

There’s a lot to a butterfly’s wing. Its barely
visible scales are made from fragile, infinitesimal structures that underlie
the insect’s ability to perform a wide variety of precise maneuvers. Researchers
from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and North Carolina State University have
used a scanning probe microscope to look at the structure of a butterfly’s wing
at a resolution of five nanometers, or two and a half times the width of DNA
molecule. A nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter, or the span of 10
hydrogen atoms.

The pictures are a
proof-of-concept that show that it is possible to use scanning probe microscopes
to analyze material from living systems.

The ability to see living
tissue at the molecular level will help scientists understand the properties of
all kinds of biosystems, said Sergei Kalinin, a research and development staff
member at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. A better understanding of how
living structures function could enable better artificial materials,
assessments of disease, and drug and physical therapies, he said.

probe microscopes show information about the surface structure and electrical,
magnetic, optical and mechanical properties of a material. The microscopes
allow researchers to image tiny areas using friction, electricity, magnetism
and acoustics.

The ultimate goal is to establish methods of
using the microscope to qualitatively measure properties of biological tissue
that are too small or too fragile to be studied by conventional testing, said
Kalinin. "To be able to see and quantitatively measure, rather than guess,
mechanical and electromechanical properties on the nanoscale can well hold the
key for unraveling the origins of biological functionality in these
materials," said Kalinin.

The researchers also want to push the technology to
its limits. "We want to achieve maximally high resolution," said Kalinin.
"Can we probe a single molecule inside [a] biological system?"

Why get so revved-up over some scope? Because stories about devices like scanning microscopes that will enable us to probe living things at the molecular level. Every time science has developed more powerful tools to study the world (e.g., telescopes, microscopes, atom-smashers,etc.) knowledge has advanced dramatically. The ability to probe living molecules precisely will give us advances in understanding cancer and other
living mysteries.

During the 19th and 20th Centuries we mastered the control of gross matter and energy. We learned to build skyscrapers, dam rivers, build sprawling highway systems, lift 400 people at a time and fly them around the world. In the 21st century we’ll master something even more powerful, the precise structure of atoms and molecules. Using the atomic force microscopes described  above and  their successors we’ll probe the most intimate secrets of macro-molecules DNA and proteins. We need that detailed knowledge to fully understand how they function in life and disease. After understanding them we will engineer them, and this article suggests they are under development. The mastery of the tiny will change our world more profoundly than control of the gross. The stories about the tools like to one above make me confident we are right on track.