NanoVision Unleashed: PicoRulers Revolutionizing Cellular Imaging

PicoRuler Molecular Nano Ruler

PicoRuler: Protein-based molecular rulers make it possible to test the optical resolution of the latest super-resolution microscopy methods on biomolecules in the sub-10-nanometer range under realistic conditions. Credit: Gerti Beliu, DALL-E 3 / University of Würzburg

Good news for researchers working with high-resolution fluorescence microscopy: Biocompatible molecular rulers are available for the first time to calibrate the latest super-resolution microscopy methods.

Recent advancements in super-resolution microscopy now enable an optical resolution of a few nanometers, comparable to the size of cellular molecules. Yet, verifying this resolution on cellular components like multiprotein complexes has been challenging due to the absence of biomolecular reference systems capable of precise dye labeling at nanometer-scale distances.

Innovative Biomolecular Tools: PicoRulers

A team of scientists led by Dr. Gerti Beliu and Professor Markus Sauer from the Rudolf Virchow Centre – Center for Integrative and Translational Bioimaging at Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany, has now provided a turning point. In the journal Advanced Materials, they present novel biocompatible molecular rulers, the PicoRulers (Protein-based Imaging Calibration Optical Rulers).

Using genetic code expansion and click chemistry, the team has succeeded in constructing these customized molecular rulers. They can be used as precise biomolecular reference structures in fluorescence microscopy. 

Technological Masterpiece: Precision at the Molecular Scale

The PicoRulers are based on the three-part protein PCNA (Proliferating Cell Nuclear Antigen), which plays a central role in DNA replication and repair. Through the precise introduction of unnatural amino acids at precisely defined positions, this protein has been modified in such a way that fluorescent dyes or other molecules can be specifically clicked onto it with minimal linkage error.

This enables researchers to test the resolution of the latest super-resolution microscopy methods with unprecedented precision on a precisely defined cellular biomolecule.

Markus Sauer is enthusiastic: “The ability to resolve real biological structures at sub-10-nanometer level marks a new era in biological imaging. Compared to previously used artificial macromolecules, our PicoRulers are not only characterized by their biological compatibility. They also enable unrivaled precision for testing resolution under realistic conditions.”

Expanding Research Horizons: Cellular Processes Unveiled

The application of this technology extends far beyond the traditional boundaries of microscopy. “Our PicoRulers are not only a tool for more precise measurements, but also open the door to a deeper and more detailed investigation of complex processes that take place within our cells,” explains Gerti Beliu.

Future Implications: Transforming Biological Imaging

The further development of the PicoRulers may change biological and medical imaging with molecular resolution in the long term. For the first time, they make it possible to validate and improve the resolution potential of new super-resolution microscopy methods on biological samples. This makes them a valuable tool for the future elucidation of the molecular organization and interaction of biomolecules in cells.

Reference: “Pcna as Protein-Based Nanoruler for Sub-10 Nm Fluorescence Imaging” by Dominic A. Helmerich, Made Budiarta, Danush Taban, Sören Doose, Gerti Beliu and Markus Sauer, 27 November 2023, Advanced Materials.
DOI: 10.1002/adma.202310104

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