Universiteit Leiden

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Image credit: Ariane Briegel

17 mln subsidy to develop electron microscopy in the Netherlands

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) has made a subsidy of 17 million euros available to further develop a Netherlands network for electron microscopy (NEMI). The network comprises five UMCs and eight universities, with Utrecht in the coordinating role. From Leiden, the Institute of Biology, with its NeCEN facility, and LUMC are involved in the network.

This subsidy will enable scientists to pool different electron microscopy techniques in order to learn more about the composition and coherence of the biological and material micro-world.

The Netherlands has a strong international position in electron microscopy (EM), a technique that allows researchers to look at the minutest building blocks of both humans and animals as materials. Electron microscopy makes it possible to literally image the basis of life and the atomic composition of materials. New technical developments mean that the potential of electron microscopy is becoming ever greater. 

Judith Klumperman, Professor of Cell Biology and chair of NEMI, likes to compare electron microscopy with Google Earth: 'It's like flying across the earth and then zooming in on the table in your back garden. With EM, you can travel through the human body or a material and zoom in on particles less than a millionth of a millimetre in size. We can even use EM techniques to go a step further to find out who put the table in the garden, when and where. It can help us answer such questions as how long it has been there, and what kind of material it is made of.  And even: what is going on with the particles in the single-cell algae that turn the table green in winter? EM methods can be applied in science to answer these kinds of questions at nano level. Thanks to EM, we will be able to learn more about the molecular mechanisms of diseases and we will then be in a position to develop smart and sustainable new materials.'

Ariane Briegel is Professor of Ultra-Structure Biology and is closely involved with NeCEN. ‘We will be able to use this NWO award to strengthen the position of NeCEN as the national centre for (cryo)electron microscopy. With this technique, biological samples can be frozen very rapidly, which generates a very precise 3D image of molecules in their natural state and environment. NeCEN is essential for many researchers, but the equipment is costly to maintain. We can use this subsidy to update the equipment and instruments so that it continues to be a cutting-edge facility for electron microscopy.' Briegel and her colleagues have also already been working to forge better links with other research groups in this field. Professor of Ultrastructural and Molecular Imaging Bram Koster adds: ‘We will also be renewing the facilities in the LUMC. We are going to improve the automation of this technique, which will allow us to make 3D images five times as fast.’

NEMI

There is a range of possible EM techniques. All these will be pooled and exchanged in NEMI (the Netherlands Electron Microscopy Infrastructure) to produce an increasingly complete image of the structures and processes that form the basis of life. NEMI partners specialised in EM will be working on the further development of the expertise. By deciding together who has what expertise, it will be possible to target and procure the right EM equipment and to make sure it is used effectively. An electron microscope costs several million euros and the maintenance costs are extremely high, which means that these are important considerations. The NWO subsidy will be used to procure the most state-of-the-art EM equipment, develop the next generation of microscopes and facilitate the use of EM among a broad group of users.