NET NEWS: Microscopy Across an Ocean

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Science  17 Jul 1998:
Vol. 281, Issue 5375, pp. 303
DOI: 10.1126/science.281.5375.303a

A big push by biologists to use computer networks to operate rare instruments from afar passed a major milestone on 25 June: Scientists took a spin on the world's most powerful electron microscope in Japan—while sitting 6000 kilometers away in California.

Six years ago, University of California, San Diego, neuroscientist Mark Ellisman thrilled audiences at a conference in Chicago by using the Internet to control an electron microscope in San Diego. Several U.S. agencies jumped in to fund projects for operating microscopes by remote control, and by now at least a dozen groups are doing so in the United States. Ellisman's team has since moved on to the Mount Everest of microscopes: Osaka University's Ultra High Voltage Electron Microscope, a 3,000,000-volt behemoth that can create three-dimensional images from much thicker samples (such as biological cells) than ordinary microscopes can. Ellisman and his U.S. and Japanese colleagues wondered if they could operate this instrument's roomful of controls from across the Pacific Ocean.

They showed they could. Over 5 hours, San Diego scientists imaged nerve cells from a rat and a frog without setting foot in Japan, controlling things like focus and specimen position across a private data line while the images came in across a satellite video link. Ellisman says this lays the groundwork for researchers all over the United States and Japan to borrow each others' specialized microscopes, probably via a high-speed Internet link, “within a year or two.”

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