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Howard Berg, Ph.D. joined the Danforth Center in 2000 as Integrated Microscopy Facility Director. His research is focused on using both live cell imaging and electron microscopy to study how plant cells are organized mechanistically to produce the outcome that we see in a crop plant.
Q: In a nutshell, how do you describe your research? As director of the microscopy facility, my research is primarily collaborative—I get involved with many of the Danforth Center Principal Investigators on a variety of their research projects, with the goal of challenging our instruments to produce data that can answer relevant questions. I also have my own research projects in the cell biology of nitrogen fixing symbioses and in plant virus infections.
Q: Why is microscopy imperative to efforts to improve crops or understand basic functions? In plant cell biology we want to understand how molecules interact in a mechanistic way, to help understand how they produce the outcome that we see in a crop plant.
Q: Can you tell us a little about which microscope at the Center is used most often and why? A confocal microscope is the most common research grade microscope used in cell biology. The Center’s new Leica SP-8 confocal microscope is the most popular of all of our instruments, by far.
A confocal microscope produces images in a way that is similar to MRI imaging—intact tissue is imaged by scanning it with laser light, producing stacks of image slices comprising the entire cell that are then put together to form a three dimensional image of the cell. The sample tissue remains living during this process, making it possible to study the behavior of proteins in living cells over time, shedding light on mechanisms for protein function.
The Leica’s cameras have twice the capabilities as those on our previous instrument, and the Leica has a remarkable laser that produces 200 laser lines, giving a rainbow of colors for use in fluorescence that is not available in any other confocal microscope.
The purchase of the instrument was possible by a grant award from the NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation program—a highly competitive grant program. It replaced an older instrument, giving us twelve years of technology improvements.
Q: Do you work often with local outside companies or more internally with Danforth PI’s? Do you help design and implement their experiments? How do they hear about our facility?
Our facility is used primarily by Danforth Center labs. Other users include BRDG Park tenants, Monsanto, and regional academic institutions including Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Missouri- St. Louis, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Typically, users already have the experiment designed but if someone is new to microscopy, I can help them design and implement the experiment, depending on their needs.
At the moment, we have one of the best confocal microscopes in the region, which is a huge draw. Very rarely does a microscopy facility have both an electron microscope and a confocal microscope.
Q: You have an interesting background in cell biology, plant cell structure and confocal and electron microscopy. Is this a field many students are tapping into or does it require a certain set of skills?
We expose our summer interns to electron microscopy, which has sparked their interest. It is a more involved discipline. What really attracts students most is confocal microscopy because it has a shorter learning curve and can quickly produce data.
Twice a year, I give a four-day course in confocal microscopy, which attracts students and faculty from around the region. During the course we fully immerse ourselves in how microscopes work, both in theory and in hands-on sessions where students learn to operate the Leica SP-8 confocal microscope.
Q: What inspired you or guided you into this area of plant science? As a graduate student I took a course in electron microscopy that was really intriguing to me and ultimately that is what drew me into the field.
Q: What is your impression of the Danforth Center since you have been here and for the future? When I was a faculty member at the University of Memphis, I read an article in Science about the formation of the Danforth Center and immediately became interested in joining this institute devoted to plant science. I moved to St. Louis in 2000 while the building was still under construction, and moved into the new facility in October 2001 with a grant in hand, actually the first grant at the Center from the NSF—it was fantastic.
The Danforth Center continues to be a world-class plant science research institute. We have a state-of-the-art building filled with leading scientists, and a noble mission to use plant science research to produce more abundant supplies of nutritious food, sustainable energy and to create new jobs for our region. This is incredibly inspiring and, to me, a good reflection of Bill Danforth’s leadership.
Learn more about the Center's Integrated Microscopy Facility and be sure to register for the next Confocal Microscopy Short Course. This course, schedule for January 5-9, 2015, will provide a solid background on the use of light microscopy, especially confocal microscopy, as a tool to study cell and molecular biology. The course will consist of morning lectures that provide theoretical background in various aspects of light microscopy and afternoon lab sessions that give the student hands-on experience in operating a confocal microscope, the Integrated Microscopy Facility’s Leica SP-8 confocal microscope. After Monday, students will not need to attend afternoons except for their scheduled hands-on training (two-hour) session. Friday is solely for student training sessions. The course is designed for beginning and intermediate users of confocal microscopy and for those wanting a refresher on confocal and light microscopy.
The course syllabus may be found here. Register now!
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