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Unique imaging uncovers the invisible world where surfaces meet

Hoping to find new ways of addressing environmental pollution, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) has developed some novel ways to observe what happens inside a cell when it comes in contact with contaminants or when toxic substances touch soil and water.

An object's molecules and electrons are always in motion, vibrating and wiggling.

Carol Hirschmugl, an associate professor of physics, tracks what happens to molecules when they meet the surface of a particular material or move around in a living cell by taking advantage of these vibrations and using them to map the movement of chemicals within the molecules.

Before she can witness any action, though, she has to detect all the parts involved. Using a device called a synchrotron, Hirschmugl can probe what she could not with a normal microscope. The synchrotron emits energy at all spectral frequencies, from infrared (IR) to X-rays. The light emitted by IR, which is what Hirschmugl uses, is intense, but not visible with the human eye.

IR reveals the vibrations of molecules in a cell, which act as "signatures," allowing Hirschmugl to identify the material she's working with. She is using the technique to observe how algae digest carbon dioxide (and give off oxygen), something that has implications for controlling air pollution.

In her work with algae, she studies the distribution of proteins, lipids and carbohydrates, molecules that play a major role in metabolizing the organism's food (photosynthesis). It's important in fully understanding a process that is so vitally linked to human respiration and environmental health.

"Since the alga uses up a lot of CO2," she says, "what we're interested in is what happens when you change its environmental conditions. We want to look at how its biological makeup changes when exposed to say, runoff pollution."

Recently funded by the National Science Foundation, Hirschmugl will be developing
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Contact: Carol Hirschmugl
cjhirsch@uwm.edu
414-229-5748
University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee
27-Oct-2006


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