Every great structure, from the Empire State Building to the Golden Gate Bridge, depends on specific mechanical properties to remain strong and reliable. Rigidity—a material's stiffness—is of particular importance for maintaining the robust functionality of everything from colossal edifices to the tiniest of nanoscale structures. In biological nanostructures, like DNA networks, it has been difficult to measure this stiffness, which is essential to their properties and functions. But scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have recently developed techniques for visualizing the behavior of biological nanostructures in both space and time, allowing them to directly measure stiffness and map its variation throughout the network.

Knowing the mechanical properties of DNA structures is crucial to building sturdy biological networks, among other applications. According to Zewail, this type of visualization of biomechanics in space and time should be applicable to the study of other biological nanomaterials, including the abnormal protein assemblies that underlie diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Although femtochemistry can capture atoms and molecules in motion, giving the time dimension, it cannot concurrently show the dimensions of space, and thus the structure of the material. This is because it utilizes laser light with wavelengths that far exceed the dimension of a nanostructure, making it impossible to resolve and image nanoscale details in tiny physical structures such as DNA .

To overcome this major hurdle, the 4D electron microscope employs a stream of individual electrons that scatter off objects to produce an image. The electrons are accelerated to wavelengths of picometers, or trillionths of a meter, providing the capability for visualizing the structure in space with a resolution a thousand times higher than that of a nanostructure, and with a time resolution of femtoseconds or longer.

The experiments reported in PNAS began with a structure created by stretching DNA over a hole embedded in a thin carbon film. Using the electrons in the microscope, several DNA filaments were cut away from the carbon film so that a three-dimensional, free-standing structure was achieved under the 4D microscope.

Next, the scientists employed laser heat to excite oscillations in the DNA structure, which were imaged using the electron pulses as a function of time—the fourth dimension. By observing the frequency and amplitude of these oscillations, a direct measure of stiffness was made.

Using 4D electron microscopy, Zewail's group has begun to visualize protein assemblies called amyloids, which are believed to play a role in many neurodegenerative diseases, and they are continuing their investigation of the biomechanical properties of these networks. He says that this technique has the potential for broad applications not only to biological assemblies, but also in the materials science of nanostructures.

This story is reprinted from material from Caltech, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.