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HOLD STILL FOR THE CAMERA: SCRIPPS FLORIDA PLANS $15 MILLION IN MICROSCOPES THAT FREEZE MOLECULES

Scripps Florida aims to invest $15 million in a set of microscopes that freeze molecules, a process that gives scientists a clear view of tiny particles.

The Jupiter-based nonprofit already has ordered a $5 million cryo-electron microscope that it expects to begin using next July, said Douglas Bingham, head of Scripps Florida.

The lab hopes to buy two more microscopes that are less expensive than the initial piece of equipment. Scripps Florida’s new Molecular Imaging Center also will require an investment in software and staff to operate the high-tech microscopes.

Cryo-electron microscopy works by cooling samples to —140 degrees Celsius, a temperature so cold that all movement ceases. The concept: Make cells hold still for the photo.

“It’s like taking any other picture — if they’re moving, it’s blurry,” Bingham said. “It allows us to image molecules on an atom-by-atom basis.”

To pay for the new Molecular Imaging Center, Scripps Florida is asking state legislators for $4.3 million. It’s also embarking on a fundraising campaign that includes selling naming rights to the new equipment.

In the early days of Scripps Florida, which came to Jupiter in 2004, one of its selling points was its “ultra high-throughput screening” robot that lets researchers test many samples at once.

“One of the things we offer is an amazing set of tools,” Bingham said. “Updating the toolbox is constant, and it’s very expensive.”

The Molecular Imaging Center is a nod to the reality that technology is forever evolving — and top researchers flock to the labs with the latest and greatest equipment.

“We have to keep it current if we’re going to retain them,” Bingham said. “The marketplace for scientists is very robust. We get poached, we poach others.”

Cryo-electron microscopes will make Scripps Florida more appealing to top scientists, said Michael Farzan, a Scripps Florida researcher who was lured from Harvard.

“That is a complete draw for people we’re trying to recruit,” Farzan said.

While the Scripps Research Institute’s main campus in San Diego has a cryo-electron microscope, the waiting list to use that machine is a year, Bingham said.

Scripps Florida plans to open its new facility to scientists from Max Planck Florida, Florida Atlantic University and other labs.

The lab hopes the investment will pay for itself in the form of research grants and royalties from drugs developed with the new equipment.


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