How and Why Do Scientists Use an X-Ray Microscope
to Study Malaria?

  The x-ray microscope is an extremely powerful microscope that permits analysis of the subcellular components of a human or bacterial cell. It works like a light microscope, except it uses x-rays instead of visible light and has a camera and monitor to image the specimen.

The X-Ray Microscope

Unlike the more widely used electron microscope, the x-ray microscope is capable of imaging thick specimens, allowing researchers to view unsliced cells. Because of this, scientists can see a closer representation of what the original cell structures look like, because the cells have not been subjected to disrupting preparations like dehydration and slicing. Some other advantages of using the x-ray microscope are that no special preparations are needed to view a specimen and it produces very-high-resolution images.

Viewing Malaria-Infected Blood Cells

The silicon nitride x-ray viewing windows pictured here are used with the x-ray microscope. These are different from regular microscope slides because they are extremely thin and allow x rays to pass more easily through them. Among other experiments, researchers at Berkeley Lab are studying how the malaria-infected blood cells bind to blood vessels. Since using an actual live human blood vessel for their experiments is not possible, they use melanoma (skin cancer) cells in their experiments. This is a good substitute, because certain receptors on the surface of melanoma cells are similar to those of endothelium in the blood vessels and because the melanoma cells are relatively easy to grow and maintain. Melanoma cells grow readily on the x-ray window. After several days of growth, infected blood cells are incubated on top of the melanoma cells and the parasitized red blood cells bind to the specialized receptors on the melanoma cell surface. This allows researchers using the x-ray microscope to monitor the interaction betweein the infected cells and the melanoma receptors.

What a Malaria-Infected Cell Looks like with the X-Ray Microscope

This is an image taken with the x-ray microscope of a malaria-infected blood cell. Researchers at Berkeley Lab use pictures like this to analyze what makes the malaria-infected blood cells stick to the blood vessels. Hopefully, the information they gather on the malaria parasite from experiments like this will help lead to the cure for this widespread disease.
For more information on how x-ray microscopes are used to probe a variety of biological mysteries, see the Center for X-Ray Optics Soft X-ray Microscopy web pages.


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Last updated August 10, 2001