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Look at the smallest pieces of life’s puzzle

Look at the smallest pieces of life’s puzzle

A new super microscope and a new research building will open this week on the Berlin-Buch campus. They are used in so-called cryogenic electron microscopy, which allows you to look deeply into the smallest cell structures – at the nanometer level. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. You can see more clearly than ever what happens, for example, when molecules collide inside a cell.

The new cryogenic electron microscope is four meters high and costs around five million euros. It is located in a new research building named after Isolde Dietrich. The physicist, who died in 2017, conducted research in Berlin for a long time and, not least, laid the foundations of electron microscopy in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Ernst Ruska.

The Isolde Dietrich House will be inaugurated on September 15 in Berlin-Buch with a one-day symposium. It houses the so-called Cryo-Electron Microscopy (Cryo-EM) Core Facility. This is run by Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in cooperation with the Max Delbrück Center and the Leibniz Research Institute for Molecular Pharmacology (FMP).

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A detailed look deep into the inner cells

Using cryo-EM, “structural biology can venture inside the cell.” explains Christoph Depolder, structural biologist and head of the new core facility. It allows scientists to view biological specimens in their natural state “at near-atomic resolution, and thus investigate the fine structure and function of complex cellular machinery such as the ribosome, the cell’s ‘protein product’.”

In this way, the biochemical processes of “life’s smallest puzzle pieces” become visible, according to the Max Delbrück Centre’s contribution. It can also be used to track the processes that cause many diseases.

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This is done by examining samples that are only 300 nanometers thick, shock-frozen to minus 150 degrees Celsius, and examined in a cryogenic electron microscope. This looks like the huge safe in Isolde Dietrich’s new house. The name Isolde Dietrich is almost unknown compared to the names of other prominent researchers in Berlin. But it once made a decisive contribution to the global success of electron microscopy.

It looks completely unspectacular: a view of part of the four-metre cryogenic electron microscope at Berlin-Buch.Webke Beatz/Charité

Superconducting lenses made electron microscopes much clearer

The physicist, born in 1919, who died on January 17, 2017 at the age of 97, spent almost her entire career at Siemens AG in Berlin and Munich. She worked with Ernst Ruska, inventor of the scanning electron microscope, and developed his ideas in the 1960s – including the superconducting lenses she invented, which were cooled to temperatures near absolute zero using liquid helium and produced the particularly sharp images that became possible. In 1993 she founded the Dr. Isolde Dietrich Foundation to promote fundamental research in the field of solid state physics. This primarily supports young female scientists.