The Integrated Microscopy Center transforms mundane insides
of carrots into sci-fi landscapes and illuminates the hidden
intricacies of the human body.
Sharon Frase, IMC coordinator, and Dr. Lewis Coons,
the center's director, use the confocal laser scanning
microscope to hone in on a specimen sample
2. Self-assembled vesicles, which are used as templates
to fabricate nanocapsules for a broad range of applications
such as drug delivery devices
3. These slender rod shapes, nanorods, hold promise
as miniturized light detection sensors and light-emitting
diodes, which are electronic devices
In assisting endeavors such as medical diagnoses and artificial
joint improvements, the microscopes of the facility also uncover
the aesthetic grandeur in familiar objects. It's nature's
artistry discovered by way of magnification. IMC excavates
worlds within worlds in its crucial role of providing tools
that aid doctors, scientists and other researchers in addressing
syndromes, solving problems and improving products.
This wide range of efforts occurs under just one roof at
the IMC at the University of Memphis. But like the act of
placing a specimen under the lens of one of IMC's high-powered
microscopes, a closer look at the center and its eclectic
projects reveals hidden depths and seemingly limitless opportunities.
The IMC, which is affiliated with the FedEx Institute of
Technology, has grown substantially since its inception in
1976, expanding its line of equipment and sharpening the resolution
of its microscopes. The center, which specializes in equipment
with tech-intensive-sounding microscopes with names such as
electron scanning and atomic force as well as various approaches
for specimen preparation, currently serves 50 to 60 off-campus
clients and 30 to 40 on-campus users a year, estimates Dr.
Lewis Coons, IMC director and a U of M professor of biology.
The center also is making a push to reach out to the orthopedic
and musculoskeletal communities. It already has conducted
projects for Medtronic, Wright Medical Technology Inc. and
the University of Tennessee. "There's not a bone histology
lab in the city, and we're trying to develop one here, so
that they have some place in town to get the work done,"
says Sharon Frase, IMC coordinator. "We've been working
toward that goal for a couple years. And we're about there."
Other IMC clients include Cargill, the largest private company
in the United States; St. Jude Children's Research Hospital;
and professors at Rhodes College and Christian Brothers University.
The IMC's relationship with the FedEx Institute of Technology
on campus has helped jumpstart relationships that will open
the doors to new opportunities. "It's been very valuable
for us in networking," Coons says.
After all, the center, which operates on a fee-for-service
basis, isn't restricted to a specific department. Rather,
it's a resource for the U of M, the community and beyond.
"It's here for everybody who has a qualified need for
it," says Coons.
Top (and carrot insides)
There's no doubt that Cargill, an international provider
of food, agricultural and risk management services, has a
qualified need for IMC - the center has aided hundreds of
Cargill projects since 1999, says Dr. John McDonald (PhD '86),
a research fellow based in the company's Minneapolis headquarters.
the largest private company in the United States, has
used the Integrated
Microscopy Centers microscopes for numerous projects,
including analyzing the effects of a new preservative
on the cellular structure of a carrot.
What started out as engaging IMC's capabilities to make "pretty
pictures" of certain Cargill projects soon evolved into
more in-depth undertakings, says McDonald. While Cargill conducts
research on most of its commercial projects with its own imaging
technology, it continues to cultivate a number of ideas at
the IMC that shape its ventures. "Any time we have things
that are more fundamental and have some knowledge to gain,
the University environment is more suitable to do that than
in house," McDonald says.
Michael Blackburn, director of research for Cargill's scientific
resources center, says the technicians at IMC bring a fresh
point of view that can benefit the company's projects. "They
look at things differently and may see things that we didn't
see," Blackburn says.
In addition to using the IMC equipment to examine the size
and arrangement of the holes in marshmallows, which determine
their textures, Cargill also tested a preservative it had
developed. In that experiment the center analyzed the carrot's
cellular structure with numerous techniques, including laser
scanning confocal microscopy, which can optically slice through
thick samples and still provide high resolution. The preserved
carrot tissue exhibited intact nuclei. In contrast, in the
unpreserved carrot, the network of cell walls had "melted"
into an undefined mass.
What purpose did this all serve? As a result of these findings,
Cargill decided to sell the preservative in the United States.
under a lens
The Memphis community is using the IMC in a diverse array
of applications that underscore the versatility of the center.
The full-time staff of research specialists Lou G. Boykins,
Jackie Craft and Jennifer Tzefakes plays a vital role in facilitating
these varied undertakings.
Duckworth Pathology Group, which provides services to the
Methodist Hospital system in Memphis, has used IMC to help
make certain diagnoses and rule out others. In several instances,
the use of the electron microscopes has enabled doctors to
identify abnormalities in cilia, which sweep dust and debris
through the respiratory tract, in a rare condition that can
afflict children who have recurring respiratory infections,
says Dr. Thomas O'Brien, a pathologist with Duckworth. "We
use electron microscopy because it can magnify the structure
of the cilia so greatly we can actually use that to look for
specific defects in the substructure and make diagnoses based
on that," O'Brien says.
Dr. Karen Hasty, a professor in the Department of Orthopaedic
Surgery/Campbell Clinic at the University of Tennessee Health
Science Center, has used the IMC's equipment to aid research
related to arthritis therapies and to develop tissue-engineering
methodology to replace cartilage that has been destroyed.
"In degenerative arthritis you just wear down your
cartilage surface," says Hasty. "We take animals
[pigs], with cartilage defects, and we put healthy cells back
onto the eroded surface of the cartilage, and then we let
them walk around. At some time after the replacement surgery,
we have to go back in to see if the transplanted tissue is
surviving after normal physical activity."
That's where IMC comes in.
In order "to really make some sort of statement about
what's going on there, you have to be able to see it at a
really high magnification," Hasty says.
Dr. Ann M. Viano, assistant professor of physics at Rhodes
College, is researching ways to extend the life of artificial-joint
biomaterials. Viano uses the transmission electron microscope
to examine a polymer in the artificial joint "that's
supposed to do what human cartilage does, which is provide
a slippery surface," she says. The primary question Viano's
research revolves around is "why can't we make this last
The problem resides in the limited lifespan of the material,
and the potential detrimental effects this can produce. "In
your body this actually wears, and little pieces come off,"
Viano says. "You're body says, "Hey, that looks
like something foreign. I'm going to attack it.' And you get
an infection, and the joint fails. So our goal is to figure
out what's going on" in regards to the wear of the material.
Barbara Blum, senior materials engineer at Wright Medical
Technology, says her company has used electron microscopy
at the center to examine the infrastructure of materials used
to contain bone graft materials in bone defects, which could
have resulted from trauma or cancerous lesions. Wright Medical
also has used the IMC's instruments to look at materials that
augment rotator cuff repair.
Dr. Malinda Fitzgerald (B.S. '76, M.S. '79), associate professor
of biology at Christian Brothers University, not only uses
the IMC to conduct her research, but she also has sent five
of her students there during summers to conduct required research
for their majors. "It helps the center and it helps the
student," Fitzgerald says. "It's a very, very good
The IMC also has enabled U of M professors and students to
pursue other opportunities that might not have materialized
without the center's presence.
Richard Smith in the Orthopaedic Surgery Department at
the University of Tennessee Health Science Center used
the IMC equipment and staining to examine the osteoclasts
- cells that exist in bone - in a sample from a rat.
The IMC played a key role in the establishment of the INDIUM
Institute for Nanomaterials Development and Innovation at
the U of M this past spring, says Dr. Eugene Pinkhassik, assistant
professor of chemistry and director of the institute.
The inclusion of IMC as an integral resource during the grant-writing
process helped the institute secure funding from the National
Science Foundation. "It's hard to speculate, but if we
didn't have anything like that on campus I don't know whether
this grant would be awarded simply because people would question
the possibility to do all the work," Pinkhassik says.
Potential applications of the nanomaterials include the development
of a drug delivery capsule that would be able to hone in on
a specific organ and thus eliminate common side effects that
can occur when a typical drug is disseminated through the
U of M student Dwight Bordelon, a PhD candidate in biomedical
engineering, has used the atomic force and laser scanning
confocal microscopes to gauge the thickness of the membrane
coating on biosensors. The thickness of the material is crucial
to the effectiveness of the sensors, which can be used by
the medical community to measure certain elements in blood
samples such as potassium and sodium, according to Bordelon,
a student of Dr. Erno Lindner, professor of analytical chemistry
and biomedical engineering.
Meanwhile, other efforts at the IMC are rounding the curve
from distant prospects to imminent reality. And then there
are those infinitesimal landscapes that remain beyond not
only the human eye, but also the realm of human imagination
at the moment. As technology continues to evolve in its sophistication,
expect IMC to bring those unexplored topographies into sharp