Imagine being able to watch how protein folds or DNA responds to damage in real time — that's what researchers at Ohio State University hope to do with a new technique that takes quick snapshots of molecules as they move about, reports Hannah Waters at The Scientist. The researchers, who published their work in Nature, shoot a laser through a hole in a vacuum chamber, creating an infrared laser field, Waters says. "The laser's intensity knocks an electron out of atomic orbit just for a few femtoseconds, or 10-15 seconds. In that short time before the electron is pulled back into orbit, the bonds holding the molecule's atoms stretch. And, even if they shift by only a mere angstrom (10-10 meters), [the] equipment could pick up the change in the electron's scattering angle and the diffraction pattern created by the stretched bond," she adds. "By adjusting the laser's wavelength, the group could control how long each electron left orbit before returning, effectively taking a series of snapshots of the molecule's shape."
This isn't the first time researchers have tried to study molecular shapes by scattering electrons, but this technique allows for more detailed observations of how the molecules shift shapes, even as they do so very quickly. The study analyzed the movement of simple molecules like oxygen and nitrogen, but the researchers hope they can use it to analyze more complex molecules or molecular reactions, Waters says.
Full disclosure: Hannah Waters, who wrote the article at The Scientist, is a minority investor in GenomeWeb, though she has no editorial input in our publications.