A Moment of Science

Bacteria Portrait Sessions

A team of chemists and microbiologists has put a new spin on a type of photography: a small‑scale spin, to be precise. They photograph bacteria!

Electron microscope image of the bacteria (bordetella pertussis) responsible for pertussis (whooping cough).

Photo: Sanofi Pasteur (Flickr)

Electron microscope image of the bacteria (bordetella pertussis) responsible for pertussis (whooping cough).

Have you ever watched one of those time‑lapse photo sequences where you see a person age several years in just a few minutes? Well, at Indiana University, a team of chemists and microbiologists has put a new spin on this type of photography: a small‑scale spin, to be precise. They photograph bacteria!

You may be wondering what’s so special about capturing images of bacteria. After all, you probably saw photographs of those tiny cells back in your high school biology textbook. Well, these latest “bacteria portrait sessions” provide more detailed footage than we’ve ever had before. And, it’s all thanks to a type of molecule called a “D‑amino acid.”

Photography Of Protein

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and there are many different kinds of them. Our photographer‑scientists figured out that bacterial cells readily absorb “D‑amino acids” in places where cell walls are growing. The scientists used these D‑amino acids to make florescent colored dyes.

They added different colors to bacterial cells at different points of their growth cycle, and photographed the process. The resulting images were pretty impressive. In the words of the study’s lead author, they were able to create “a movie of the life of a cell in multicolor.”

Documentation

This new type of bacteria “photo‑documentation” allows scientists to do some pretty neat things. For starters, it enhances their understanding of how bacteria grow.

This will make it easier to develop new ways of diagnosing and treating infections. Secondly, these D‑amino acids may well serve as the base for new and effective antibiotics. It turns out that those fluorescent dyes are good for more than just some pretty pictures!

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