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Remarkable results from a new observatory

June 10, 1999 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. – Scientists at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have established a new observatory, but instead of looking to the stars, it is a Cellular Observatory designed to focus inward to study the smallest components of living organisms.

"We have been able to obtain chemical information from a living cell without destroying the cell or invading it in the process. And for the first time we have been able to do this also on the cell nucleus, the internal control center of the cell," said Robert Wind, a Pacific Northwest researcher.

Pacific Northwest, a premier national environmental research laboratory, is working to understand the impact of the environment and contaminants in the environment on human life and health.

"This is another step along the path," Wind said.

Wind and other members of an interdisciplinary team of scientists achieved this result by placing a single frog cell, a Xenopus oocyte, inside a nuclear magnetic resonance microscope imager. This type of frog cell has been widely used by scientists for many decades because it shares numerous common traits with human cells. The NMR imager works very much like a magnetic resonance imaging unit at a modern hospital. However, while the hospital units can only examine relatively large sections of the body containing millions of cells, the NMR microscope can be used to examine much smaller collections of live cells, or, as in the case of an oocyte, even a single cell can be studied. And this microscope not only produces an image of the cell, it also reveals information about the cell's chemical composition and allows scientists to monitor changes in both the shape and the chemical contents of the cells as they occur.

Traditional analytical methods require the destruction or significant modification of cells to examine chemical changes within them. This means that valuable information is lost, resulting in an inaccurate description of the cell. The non-invasive NMR method will enable scientists to monitor how live cells respond as they are exposed to changes in their environment.

"The connection between environmental exposure and human health problems has long been known, but we know precious little about what really happens when a chemical substance enters the body," said Gerald Stokes, associate laboratory director of the Environmental and Health Sciences Division at Pacific Northwest. Stokes compared Wind's work to a celestial observatory achieving its "first light."

"Achieving first light in an observatory is exciting, whether it be celestial or cellular. This event puts us on the path toward our goal of being able to study living cells," said Stokes.

Studying cellular changes in "real time" will help scientists learn how cells fight off diseases, why some cells fail to fight off diseases, how to predict and prevent diseases and to follow treatment of diseases. Also, it will become possible to study the effects on cells exposed to multiple contaminants at the same time and, ultimately, to relate these cellular responses to the effects of environmental exposure on human health.

"The more we learn, the better we will be able to determine health effects of various agents and understand how much or how little is dangerous to human health," said Stokes.

Scientists will also be able to study the effects on cells exposed to several contaminants at the same time.

"Contaminants don't always enter our bodies one at a time. We are often exposed to a mixture of very low concentrations of several chemical agents and we need to have a much better understanding of how these agents interact inside our bodies and how our bodies respond to this kind of exposure. This is another area we hope to learn more about," said Stokes.

Tags: Environment

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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