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What's in an Image?

— Yvette Chin


While research is learning the unknown, electron microscopy is seeing the unseen.

Using high-energy electron beams to overcome the limits of vision imposed by traditional light microscopes, the electron microscope reveals spectacular detail: Even strands of DNA itself become visible.

Electron microscopy “provides a new, unexpected and startling perspective,” said Mark Farmer, director of the UGA Center for Advanced Ultrastructural Research (CAUR) and a professor of cellular biology.

For example, were it not for the detailed images generated by Farmer’s center, UGA cell biologist Marcus Fechheimer and his team might not have discovered how to cultivate Hirano bodies in the lab — a discovery that could lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s and related diseases. (See related story)

The CAUR has enabled researchers to perform some exotic work. A few years ago, its microscopists authenticated what appeared to be the molecular signature of primitive life in a sample of Martian rock. On another occasion, what was believed to be a long-lost Bowie knife was determined to be just a clever replica.

In addition to high-resolution imaging, electron microscopes can play a role in nanotechnology — the construction of devices that are impossibly small. Using the microscope’s electron beam, CAUR technicians etched a 2-micron UGA arch logo onto a silicon wafer. At this width, 12,500 of them could fit in a single inch — an example of technology some engineers believe portends computer chips that are not only smaller and faster but cheaper as well.

The CAUR caters to the needs of more than 60 labs in 15 departments at UGA alone. “The only people who don’t come in here are statisticians,” laughed John Shields, who manages the facility along with Farmer. The Center also attracts researchers from neighboring universities and institutes.

For more information, access or email Mark Farmer at


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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