These Are the First X-Rays of a Living Cell

To get a super-detailed X-ray view inside a cell—right down to the individual molecules—scientists dunk the cell they're looking at in preservative chemicals. That not only kills the cell, it changes its internal structure ever so slightly, meaning researchers aren't getting an exact look at the cell's natural state. Now, scientists at Germany's DESY Research Center have found a way around that, with a technique that's produced the world's first X-ray of an individual living cell.

In a paper published this week in Physical Review Letters, the team describes a system for keeping cancer cells from the adrenal cortex alive during X-ray study. They grew the cells on silicon nitrite plates, which are nearly invisible to X-rays, pumping nutrients to the cells and evacuating metabolic waste through incredibly tiny 0.5 millimeter channels.

Because long exposure to high-energy X-ray can damage or kill a living cell, the researchers used tiny, 0.05-second X-ray blasts to produce images so clear, even nanometer-scale structures are visible. When compared with images of chemically-fixed cells, these X-rays prove that the chemical fixation process makes significant changes to the tiny, 30- to 50-nanometer structures within the cell.

Yes, technically speaking, the X-ray you got at your last dentist's appointment was looking at (and through) living cells. But the high-energy, super-fine X-rays needed to view nanometer-size structures have never produced images of living cells before. A technique like this could revolutionize our view of the structures inside cells. In fact, by proving that standard fixation techniques change the cellular structure, it already has. [DESY via Eurekalert]