Well-Being Medical Advances

Researchers creating new microscope to study tiny molecules that make cells work

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Story at a glance

  • A pair of associate professors at Oregon Health & Science University are developing a new imaging and computational system to better see the inside of cells.
  • The new tools will be used to see how some proteins organize themselves inside of cells.
  • The research could eventually help scientists better understand the body’s immune system response.

Researchers from Oregon Health & Science University are developing a new type of microscope that will help scientists study how tiny molecules make cells work by organizing in the right place.  

Associate professors of biomedical engineering in the OHSU School of Medicine Catherine and James Galbraith were awarded a grant of $1 million to be used over the next three years to develop a new imaging and computational system to observe the movement of these molecules. 


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The organization inside of cells remains mostly a mystery to scientists, but 10 years ago, researchers discovered that proteins inside of cells function without membranes, the thin layer that usually covers inner cell parts known as organelles.  

Researchers found out that these proteins use something called “phase separations,” like oil droplets in water. The Galbraith’s forthcoming system will aim to decode molecule aggregates, or collections of proteins or ribonucleic acids, to better see how they rearrange inside of cells.  

“The impact of this work generously funded by the Keck Foundation will be far-reaching for understanding how phases regulate physiology and disease. Instead of identifying a phase as something that looks and behaves like an oil droplet in water, we will be able to see individual molecules coalescing into an aggregate,” James Galbraith said in a statement.  

Some scientists believe that studying phase separations can lead to a better understanding of key cellular processes like reading DNA and making proteins, as well as immune responses and even the reproduction of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.  

In addition, the research could lead to figuring out if malfunctioning phase separations can lead to protein accumulation that help cause some diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to a release.  

“Better understanding of how these small variations in molecular organization control physiology and lead to disease could lead to better therapeutic targets,” Catherine Galbraith said. 


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