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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Big Business, Little Bugs!

So this week took us WAYYYYYYYY further down the path of science fiction. I've been behind as a correspondent, so sorry for holding out on you.

We did a couple of really fantastic things this week, and also got some excellent swag courtesy of our excellent hosts at the BU Photonics center.

To begin with, we met with several folks from the BU business incubator, which sits on the 6th floor of the Photonics center. The notion, as we learned from David Bergstein of Zoiray Technologies is that small stuff if big business for a lot of reasons. David's company is small right now, and is in the process of trying to pull together venture capital to invest in their product. What was interesting to me was that their technology rests on the same footing as the group I've been working with. As a result, I understood what David was saying - it's all getting a response to very small amounts of certain kinds of chemicals. Those could be a protein if you're trying to detect Alzheimer's disease, or a reaction to an anti-virus if you're testing someone for Marburg. Ultimately, it's got to do with saving lives, and offering cutting edge medical testing to people without lots of money to pay for those tests.

We also heard from Tom Bifano, who is the director of the Photonics Center at BU. In addition to his work at BU, Tom gave us a look inside his own company, Boston Micromachines. Starting, as he said, with "a truly crappy product that really didn't work," Tom and his engineering staff have, several years later, developed an amazing device. The theory is simple: light gets distorted by all sorts of things around us - the atmosphere, water, and the goo in our eyes, to name a few. Where Tom's invention comes in is that it can sense incoming light, and warp the its mirrored surface to correct for these disturbances. The trick of this is that the mirror has thousands of bits that can be controlled by these tiny machines you see above, and that the mirror can change faster than the atmosphere or the goo in your eyes can mess things up.

All you have to do is to check out these two pictures to see why this is a big deal: On the top, we have a normal image of Jupiter taken from a good earth-based telescope. Below, you
see the image taken using Tom's company's adaptive optics. Pretty Amazing, huh?! Check out the link to Tom's company - what they are able to see while looking into your eyeball is pretty astounding!

OK, so back to the title of this week's blog, which said something to do with little bugs. This week, we also got to visit one of my favorite machines. It's such a favorite, that I am going to ask Dr. Hardiman & Dr. Shannon to get me one. I mean, us one - for the science department, of course!!

The SEM stands for scanning electron microscope, and it is quite an amazing machine. As you might have heard, light is a wave, and bends around stuff like all waves do. So, when you go to see really small things, you're in a lot of trouble, because light doesn't make clean shadows or outlines or anything really. Enter the electron: it can act like a wave of course, but when it does, its waves are very tiny, and it is great for seeing very small things.

So, we beat up a mosquito. It was dead long before we sprayed it with gold metal dust to make him show up more clearly on the SEM, so let me reassure you that no mosquitoes were harmed during this demonstration. As you can see, we zoomed down a long, long way.

I always thought those images of housefly eyes were pretty amazing - they still are, but the mosquito seems to have the same kind of
multiple eye-structure feature going on that the housefly does. At least that's what I think based on my limited bug knowledge. Better check with one of the bio people to be sure!

Like I said, I am no expert when it comes to bug parts, but this last image certainly looks like a bunch of cells to me. I have to check with somebody, because I'm really curious to know if we share some of our vision cells with the mosquito. Wikipedia says that the human cone cells can be around 500 nm - 4000 nm in size, so I'm still not sure exactly what I'm seeing here. In a human, the typical cell size is around
10 micro-meters, so maybe those big blueberry things are mosquito vision cells. Like I said, biology is a foreign country to me!

One final thought on that topic: at the end of the week, I again got to sit in on our research group's weekly meeting. Again, I was amazed to see John Connors from the BU Medical Campus explaining the important cell biology to the physics people in the group. That sort of give and take is so common around here - it's not the image of the lone scientist that gets played up in the media at all - it's much more of a team effort. Funnier too! John draws cartoons to show the physics people how a cell works, and the physics people explain to John just how they're going to attack resonances in the chemicals under study. It's pretty hilarious watching them go back and forth!

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