by Ashley White
Carolyn Larabell, Director of the National Center for X-Ray Tomography (NCXT), centered around ALS Beamline 2.1, has been selected by the ALS Users’ Executive Committee to receive the 2017 David A. Shirley Award for Outstanding Scientific Achievement at the ALS. The award is named in honor of Shirley, a UC Berkeley Professor of Chemistry and Berkeley Lab Director from 1980 to 1989 who was instrumental in having the ALS built. UEC Chair Monika Blum will present the award to Larabell at the upcoming ALS User Meeting for her work pioneering soft x-ray tomography for imaging cells in their fully hydrated, functional state and for establishing the NCXT, a world-leading research facility funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Biological and Environmental Research Division of DOE.
Larabell, who is a professor and vice chair in the Anatomy Department of the School of Medicine at UC San Francisco, a faculty scientist in the Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging Division at Berkeley Lab, and an ALS professor, led the group responsible for the design, construction, and commissioning of Beamline 2.1, the world’s first soft x-ray microscope for biological imaging. The resulting work has brought her and her group numerous accolades and scientific publications.
Soft x-ray tomography (SXT) is a core technology at the NCXT. Unlike more traditional cell imaging methods, such as transmission electron microscopy, SXT images biological cells, including large mammalian cells, without having to carry out time consuming, structure damaging protocols, such as chemically fixing, dehydrating, and staining the specimen. Cells are simply removed from their growth environment and mounted for imaging. NCXT researchers couple this technique with super-resolution fluorescence imaging at cryogenic temperatures using a newly developed light microscope, revealing the location of specific fluorescently tagged molecules inside the cell. The two types of information can then be overlaid, providing a complete picture of both the structure and form of the cell (using SXT) and how the cell functions (using fluorescence imaging)—a combination unique in the world.
Larabell credits her colleagues with several “evolutionary jumps” in NCXT’s capabilities over the last 11 years since Beamline 2.1 opened, which make it better able to serve ALS users. UC San Francisco Professor and NCXT Associate Director Mark Le Gros developed the beamline’s automation abilities, allowing users to collect data with minimal assistance from NCXT staff. To help process the data, NCXT Postdoctoral Scholar Axel Ekman built an automated pipeline that instantly transfers images from the microscope to a computing cluster in the User Services Building (Building 15). The images are processed and used to automatically calculate a 3D tomographic reconstruction of the specimen.
“In the past, it took users weeks or even months to process their data,” said Larabell. “Now, users leave with a disc filled with beautiful 3D views of cells rather than raw images.”
Larabell also praised the ALS staff, including floor staff, the User Office, engineering crew, vacuum techs, electricians, computer support, the Center for X-Ray Optics, and the custodians, for their support. “I made a very wise decision setting up the NCXT at the ALS,” she said. “The ALS has been a fantastic home.”
On Tuesday, October 3, Larabell will give her award talk, entitled “The Expanding Universe of Cell Biology at the NCXT,” at the ALS User Meeting. She will cover some of the NCXT’s most significant achievements as well as her vision for the future, including how collaborations with mathematicians like Jamie Sethian (UC Berkeley and the Computational Research Division, Berkeley Lab) and Frank Alber (University of Southern California) may help discover patterns in the NCXT’s morphological data that hold the fundamental secrets to life.
“In the coming months and years, NCXT staff and users will be visualizing cells in unprecedented ways,” she said. “The future looks bright. Very, very bright.”