Researchers at The University of Nottingham have developed a breakthrough technique that uses sound rather than light to see inside live cells. This new kind of sub-optical phonon (sound) imaging has potential application in stem-cell transplants and cancer diagnosis.

The new nanoscale ultrasound technique uses shorter-than-optical wavelengths of sound to provide invaluable information about the structure, mechanical properties and behaviour of individual living cells at a scale not achieved before.

Professor Matt Clark said: “People are most familiar with ultrasound as a way of looking inside the body — in the simplest terms we’ve engineered it to the point where it can look inside an individual cell. Nottingham is currently the only place in the world with this capability.”

The discovery comes from researchers in the Optics and Photonics group at the University of Nottingham, a leading knowledge hub in the application of optical, ultrasonic and instrumentation engineering. Applications range from life sciences to healthcare and advanced manufacturing. The Advanced Optics Research Group is the largest research group in the Faculty of Engineering, with 16 academics and three Research Council-funded Fellows. It is closely associated with a number of laboratories including the Institute of Biophysics, Imaging and Optical Science which develops novel imaging technologies to investigate biological problems from the molecular level upwards.

Nottingham has long been an important centre for bioscience research, principally through the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University. It is home to BioCity Nottingham, the UK’s largest bioscience innovation and incubation centre, offering state-of-the-art laboratories, commercial space, and business support to early stage companies in the life sciences sector.

Using sound has significant advantages to conventional optical microscopy, which uses light (photons). Using light, the size and resolution of the smallest object you can see is limited by the wavelength. In biological specimens, the wavelength cannot go smaller than that of blue light because the energy carried on photons of light in the ultraviolet (and shorter wavelengths) is so high it can damage the cells.

Unlike light, sound does not have a high-energy payload, enabling the Nottingham researchers to use smaller wavelengths and see smaller things and get to higher resolutions without damaging the cell biology.

“A great thing is that, like ultrasound on the body, ultrasound in the cells causes no damage and requires no toxic chemicals to work.  Because of this we can see inside cells that one day might be put back into the body, for instance as stem-cell transplants,” added Professor Clark.


(via The University of Nottingham)

Featured image: The University of Nottingham, by Barry Mangham – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0