Victoria Steiner April 12, 2004
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
For the first time, researchers thousands of miles away can study laboratory specimens by remotely operating NASA's new 'super magnifying glass'.
The Remote Scanning Electron Microscopy (RSEM) technology was developed at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, Calif. It has been successfully tested to allow scientists to help NASA solve problems encountered by astronauts during long-duration space flights.
"This technology will enable multiple researchers at locations across the country to observe and control the scanning electron microscope (SEM), thus allowing for remote, real-time simultaneous analysis of tissue by several investigators," said Dr. Richard Boyle, director of the BioVIS Technology Center at NASA Ames.
In contrast to conventional microscopes that use light waves, the SEM uses electrons to magnify details of tissue from 10 to 100,000 times. This 'super-dissecting microscope' illuminates the sample with a great depth of field and produces three-dimensional, high-resolution images.
All scientists need to use the SEM is a suitable Web browser and network access to connect to the instrument. A remote-control system on the microscope enables real-time interface with the tissue researchers are studying.
"We are very excited about our work with NASA scientists," said molecular biologist Dr. Doris K. Wu. She is acting chief of the Section on Sensory Cell Regeneration and Development in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Bethesda, Md. "By providing remote access to a unique tool like SEM that is too expensive for many settings, NASA is enabling medical researchers to work with a wide variety of specimens without unnecessary travel costs," Wu said.
"Our first collaborative project with Dr. Wu focuses on unraveling key developmental processes of structures of the inner ear involved in hearing," Boyle said.
"The inner ear cells change when you are in space and this impacts astronauts' health," said NASA astronaut and physician Dr. Yvonne Cagle. "If we understand how these hair cells reposition themselves, we can better understand what happens over a long period of time in space."
Numerous sensory receptors in the inner ear help humans detect sound and motion. The sensors also enable humans to hear airborne sounds, feel themselves moving and sense the presence of gravity. As the population ages, hearing and vestibular disorders rise, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in falling and hearing loss in the elderly. Humans exposed to altered gravity conditions, such as those experienced by astronauts, often acquire many symptoms similar to those of vestibular patients.
"The remote aspect of this telescience capability is very essential to doctors, scientists and especially to astronauts," Cagle said. "Our training schedule is very constrained and time is very limited, so we have to use it most efficiently. So it's really exciting to be able to actually interact with what is going on without physically being there."
With RSEM, the microscope also becomes an engaging educational tool. Students can send their research samples, such as insects or plants, to NASA and work on their science projects using the SEM. Using a personal computer with Internet capability, they can log onto the SEM with a video projection system that allows demonstration and hands-on microscope operation.
"Remote SEM allowed students direct participation in the scientific process to an extent that previous projects could not, particularly because of the limited availability of scientific materials in the school," said Anand Kulkarni. Kulkarni is outreach coordinator for the Space Science Outreach and Research Program, a non-profit organization in Berkeley, Calif., that brings science courses into inner-city high schools. "The flexibility to conduct research of their own choosing engaged students better than the previous projects did," Kulkarni said. "This time, for example, they were studying hair damage caused by peroxide bleaching."
"Scientific and medical collaborations between remote sites have been of high interest within the academic community for over a decade," Boyle said. "With the advent of higher speed communication protocols over the Internet, higher resolution graphic processing and advanced computational architecture, it is now possible to work in real time or near real time with our colleagues."
For more information about the Remote Scanning Electron Microscopy project, visit:
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