Optical Microscopy: Connecting the data

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Microscopes so powerful they can be used to show protein structures and peer inside the cells of a whole, living organism are being built at the University of Wollongong.

The $80 million Molecular Horizons initiative will see the university house one of Australia’s most powerful biological electron microscopes —the Titan Krios cryo-EM microscope—as well as high-powered optical microscopes. The initiative has also led to a partnership between the University of Wollongong and MASSIVE, which will provide the supercomputing capacity and capability to support this major scientific initiative.

When the building to house this world-class equipment is completed in 2019, these microscopes will be capable of imaging not just individual biological molecules, but to visualise these molecules in action inside the cells of something as large as a roundworm or zebra fish.

“It’s the kind of microscopy that can show you living cells at extremely high resolution

and at high speed, and even living cells in a tissue context or in a whole organism,” says Professor Antoine van Oijen, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow and Director of Molecular Horizons. “It places the molecular knowledge in a cellular context.”

This incredibly high-resolution microscopy generates vast amounts of data; potentially hundreds of terabytes every day. When it was developing the Molecular Horizons initiative, the University of Wollongong had the choice of either investing in its own data storage and processing capacity, or to collaborate with an institution that had already established that infrastructure. It went with the latter, and with MASSIVE.

The Molecular Horizons centre now transmits data from its cryo-electron microscope—which is already up and running—to MASSIVE via a

high-speed glass-fibre connection. At MASSIVE, those hundreds of thousands of noisy images are cleaned and processed to generate the high-quality three-dimensional images of whatever protein or protein complex researchers are interested in. This agreement sets a benchmark for networks of data-gener- ating microscopy and data-processing institutions such as MASSIVE, which is vital when dealing with such expensive pieces of equipment, van Oijen says.

“MASSIVE plays a key role there because they’re setting up an ecosystem that allows people to do that,” he says. “And that’s really the strength—it’s not just the massive storage and computational capacity, it’s the way they have started to look at how people interact with their data.”

Wojtek James Goscinski