New, grant-funded microscope equips WKU students, faculty for ‘sophisticated research’

Western Kentucky University biologists and their students eagerly await October, when a new Laser Scanning Confocal Microscope will be installed at the university. With this sophisticated instrument, students and faculty can gather data to “understand the localization of gene products (proteins and RNA) within a cell in space and time,” said Ajay Srivastava, Ph.D., associate professor, Biology.

The Laser Scanning Confocal Microscope, funded by a National Science Foundation grant led by Srivastava, represents a significant advancement in the type of data collected and its resulting analysis.

“When you view a tissue sample through a conventional fluorescence microscope, you’ll see a lot of the background and you’ll miss information hidden in the three-dimensional spaces of the tissue,” Srivastava said. “A Laser Scanning Confocal Microscope uses a laser beam to collect discrete information at each focal plane in the sample. Then, you can put that information together to reconstruct the 3D structure and see how the cell behaves in the tissue environment.”

This is a representation of the Laser Scanning Confocal Microscope that will be installed at Western Kentucky University in October. A similar model will enable students and faculty to conduct sophisticated biology research using high-resolution cellular images. Photo provided by Ajay Srivastava, Ph.D., Western Kentucky University

The detailed, high-resolution images generated by the confocal microscope give WKU biologists the data they need to pursue a variety of research projects without having to travel to other campuses to use their confocal microscope.

Srivastava, for example, is studying the genetic basis of tumor metastasis and how tumors move from one part of the body to another. He’s especially interested in a structure called the basement membrane, which is made of proteins and molecules and is present outside the cell. This structure may hold the key to understanding how tumors grow and spread.

“All cancer cells that have begun to metastasize have broken the basement membrane down,” he said. “We will generate data to help us understand how the process of metastasis and the contribution of the basement membrane works.”

Eventually, the hope is that a better understanding of tumor metastasis will help researchers identify chemicals or molecules that might slow the process, improving the quality of life for cancer patients. This sort of outcome is likely still years away, given the complexities involved with this particular research.

This image from confocal microscope manufacturer Leica Microsystems shows a sample of cortical neurons in a rat with maximum projection

“We’re working with a basic organism, a fruit fly,” Srivastava said. “Eventually, this research will include data collection from people, but it takes a long time to do that.”

Once it’s installed on the WKU campus, the confocal microscope will be busy. Three co-principal investigators on the NSF grant have also outlined the research they’ll do with the instrument. Noah Ashley, Ph.D., associate professor, Biology, studies sleep biology by examining mammals and birds to better understand sleep. Ali Er, Ph.D., associate professor, Physics and Astronomy, will use the confocal microscope for his nanotechnology research. And Michael Smith, Ph.D., professor, Biology, is using data to understand the neurobiology of zebrafish.

Not only will faculty benefit from the new confocal microscope; students will have an exciting opportunity to expand their research, data collection and instrumentation skills, all of which Srivastava said helps them be more competitive in their future pursuits.

“The confocal microscope will expand capability and capacity in the southern Kentucky region and enable students to be part of high-caliber research projects,” Srivastava wrote in the NSF grant abstract. “Cellular localization of proteins, generation of high resolution cellular images and understanding the mechanisms involved in normal development will all be possible with this microscope, thereby exposing students to sophisticated research.”

And the hands-on impact of the new microscope doesn’t stop there. As part of the vision outlined in Srivastava’s grant proposal, the confocal microscope will be made available to regional academic institutes on a fee-per-use basis. Additionally, teachers and students from local high schools will have the opportunity to visit the lab and see how the microscope works, with the goal of encouraging students to pursue a career in the sciences.

Adding this sort of powerful instrumentation to the WKU campus can also have long-ranging effects in terms of recruitment and retention.

“These types of equipment are a game-changer,” Srivastava said. “It helps attract and recruit students and faculty. I think the impact of the confocal microscope will be substantial.”