The X-ray pulse lasted only for a millionth of a billionth of a second.

X-ray pulses capture image of intact virus

Swedish researchers working in the United States have used X-rays to take the first pictures of intact viruses.

The international team of researchers are led by Janos Hajdu of Uppsala University and Henry Chapman of the German national laboratory DESY. The 80 scientists include a team from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

They’ve captured an image of an intact virus, as well as a membrane from a bacterium. These are far too small to be seen with even the most powerful microscope.

The researchers used ultra-short X-ray pulses from the world’s first free electron laser, at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, at Stanford University in California.

Professor Hajdu says that "Biologists have long dreamed of being able to capture the image of viruses, single-celled organisms and bacteria, without having to cut them up, freeze them, or stain them, as is necessary with electron microscopes." He tells Swedish Radio’s Science Department the breakthrough feels like science fiction.

The findings pave the way for studies at the molecular level, not just snapshots, but even movies of viruses and living bacteria.

Professor Hajdu first had the idea ten years ago, and since then the researchers have been developing the equipment. They performed their experiment in December 2009, just two months after the the electron laser opened for research. Their work has been published in the journal “Nature”.

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