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Major investment in new microscope technologies

Posted on 20 February 2013

A project to drive forward the understanding of key biological processes by developing new microscope technologies has received a £2m funding boost.

Black and white and green all over – a cell from the resin slice imaged with both light and electron microscopes. The new techniques mean that researchers can see the fluorescent signals and the structure of the cells at the same time, allowing them to elucidate the function of disease-associated proteins. Credit: EM Unit, CRUK London Research Institute

The new technologies will allow researchers to answer previously inaccessible questions related to cell biology, cancer, learning and memory, and molecular/cellular microbiology.

Led by the University of York and the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute (CRUK LRI), the project aims to combine light and electron microscopes into a single system to analyse how cells and tissues change during disease and infection.

The Medical Research Council (MRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have announced over £1m funding for the project, with additional investment from the University of York, CRUK and commercial collaborators.

The research councils’ award is part of the cross-Council Next Generation Optical Microscopy initiative, launched in May 2012. Under the initiative, an international panel of experts has awarded a total of £24.5m funding to 17 cutting edge microscopy projects.

The novel instrumentation and approaches led by York and CRUK LRI will integrate light and electron microscopy for seamless imaging, which researchers will use to address a host of key biomedical questions in collaboration with world-leading scientists at the two institutes and across the UK.

The new light microscope combined with an electron microscope being developed at York is the only one of its kind in Europe. Applications include imaging of subcellular processes related to cancer, better understanding of tumour biology and cancer cell invasion, and new insights into neurodegenerative diseases.

The project is led by Dr Peter O’Toole of the Imaging & Cytometry Laboratory in York’s Department of Biology, in collaboration with Dr Lucy Collinson of the Electron Microscopy Unit at CRUK LRI.  Also involved are instrument manufacturers JEOL and DELMIC.

This novel project will now combine the two microscopes to produce more informative images and help solve a multitude of biomedical questions

Dr Peter O'Toole

Dr O’Toole said: “Currently light microscopes allow us to watch real time events in cells and tissues so that we can understand basic biological functions and the changes that occur in disease and infection. Electron microscopes have taught us much about the fine details of cellular structures thanks to their fantastic resolution, but living material cannot be readily imaged and must be 'fixed' to halt the processes of life.

“Our approach is based on exploiting new ways of preparing cells and tissues, so that they can be seen simultaneously using light and electrons. This novel project will now combine the two microscopes to produce more informative images and help solve a multitude of biomedical questions.”

Dr Richard Treisman, Director of the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute, said: “This exciting new initiative to combine light and electron microscopy in 3D will open a new window into how cells and tissues function in health and disease.

“These new microscopes will not only benefit the world-leading researchers from the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute, paving the way to a greater understanding of cancer; they will also drive forward research into a number of other diseases through our collaboration with the University of York and through access for the wider UK biomedical research community.”

Professor Deborah Smith, Head of York’s Department of Biology, said: “This project brings together a multidisciplinary team of biologists, microscopists and instrument engineers, which will allow us to advance the field of microscopy to a new dimension.  We are excited that our challenging ideas for new developments in this important research area can now be advanced by the award of this prestigious funding.”

Notes to editors:

  • Under the cross-Council Next Generation Optical Microscopy initiative, three of the UK's research councils - the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – have invested £20.1m, £2.4m and £2m respectively, to establish 17 microscopy platforms that will bring about ground breaking advances in biological and biomedical research.
  • The Imaging & Cytometry Laboratory is one of the six specialist units within the Bioscience Technology Facility, Department of Biology, University of York.  The facility provides technology expertise and instrument access to researchers from both within the University of York as well as to other academic, commercial and government organisations.  Further details of the Bioscience Technology Facility are available at:
  • The Cancer Research UK London Research Institute conducts innovative basic biological research to improve our understanding of cancer. The LRI has made significant breakthroughs since its inception, and continues to be at the forefront of its field. The LRI has over 40 research programmes across two sites, and 14 state of the art technology core facilities that support the research groups, including the Electron Microscopy Unit:
  • For further information on the University of York’s Department of Biology visit
  • JEOL is a leading global supplier of scientific instruments used for research and development in the fields of nanotechnology, life sciences, optical communication, forensics, and biotechnology. Utilising its unique technologies, products, services, and knowledge, JEOL helps its customers make significant breakthroughs in product development and scientific research. JEOL products include scientific instrumentation and industrial equipment, based on five major product groups; Electron Optics, Analytical Instruments, Semiconductor Equipment, Thin Film Coating Systems and Medical Equipment. For more information visit
  • DELMIC is a spin-off company of Delft University of Technology and the photonics institute AMOLF in Amsterdam. The company specialises in the integration of electron and light optics. The SECOM platform makes it possible to overlay functional information of the fluorescence microscope with structural information of the electron microscope with nanometer precision. The company's slogan is "integration without compromise".
  • The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. The MRC Centenary Timeline chronicles 100 years of life-changing discoveries and shows how our research has had a lasting influence on healthcare and wellbeing in the UK and globally, right up to the present day.

Contact details

Caron Lett
Press Officer

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