Scientists discuss new frontiers in single-molecule research at American Chemical Society

Not long ago, the idea of conducting an experiment on a single strand of DNA seemed far beyond the realm of science. But thanks to rapid advances in microscopy in the last decade, researchers can now watch a single gene being transcribed from DNA--one atom at a time--or observe the activity of a protein molecule as it moves inside a living cell.

This emerging revolution in nanomedical research is the focus of two scientific panels entitled "Frontiers in Single-Molecule Biophysical Chemistry and Imaging" at the 2006 national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Francisco. Panelists include two Stanford University scientists at the forefront of single-molecule microscopy--W.E. Moerner, the Harry S. Mosher Professor of Chemistry, and Steven M. Block, professor of biological sciences and of applied physics.

"The whole field continues to explode in many different directions," said Moerner, who will speak at the Sept. 12 session. "One frontier involves single-molecule experiments with living cells. We can now identify and observe an individual molecule in action inside a living bacterium. This is a growing area of research that's only a few years old."

Let there be light

One of the biggest challenges for Moerner and his co-workers is how to make an individual molecule visible without harming the live cell. "You have to be noninvasive," he explained. "You can't blast the organism with X-rays, for example, so we use light instead."

In 1989, Moerner and his fellow researchers at IBM were the first to show that a single organic molecule could be detected with optics. Since joining the Stanford Department of Chemistry in 1998, he has expanded his research to include proteins and other biomolecules. In a study published in the July 18 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), he and his Stanford colleagues successfully tagged individual molecules of a recently discovered protein called

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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