Scientists can now explore nerves in mice in much greater detail than ever before, thanks to a new approach developed by scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Monterotondo, Italy, applied for the first time to neurons in living mice. The work, published online on December 8, 2014 in Nature Methods, enables researchers to easily use artificial tags, broadening the range of what they can study and vastly increasing image resolution. “Already we’ve been able to see things that we couldn’t see before,” says Dr. Paul Heppenstall from EMBL, who led the research. “Structures such as nerves arranged around a hair on the skin; we can now seethem under the microscope, just as they were presumed to be. The technique, called SNAP-tagging, had been used for about a decade in studies using cell cultures – cells grown in a lab dish – but Dr. Heppenstall’s group is the first to apply it to neurons in living mice. It allows researchers to use virtually any labels they want, making it easier to overcome the challenges that often come with studying complex tissues and animals. To study nerves in the skin, for instance, Dr. Heppenstall’s lab can employ artificial dyes that are small enough to cross the barrier posed by the skin itself, and stand out better from the skin’s natural fluorescence. And because these are artificial, custom-made tags, they can be designed to do more than just highlight particular structures. Scientists can produce tags that destroy certain structures or cells, for instance.
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