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Going nano to see viruses 3-D

'Technical tour de force' is first step to seeing proteins in 3-D

Physicists have created an MRI-like machine capable of making three-dimensional scans of single virus particles — a resolution 100 million times higher than previously possible.

The achievement is a step toward imaging individual proteins, the knotted molecules that assemble to form viruses and that play a central role in the chemistry of all life.

“Our long-term dream is to have a technique that could look at the 3-D structure of molecules in your body such as proteins,” says Daniel Rugar, a physicist with IBM Research at Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. Currently, finding proteins’ 3-D shapes requires first crystallizing the proteins, a difficult and time-consuming step that hinders protein research. Rugar’s MRI-like technique, reported online January 12 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, might someday image individual particles without the need for crystallization.

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