Gas vesicles—incredibly tiny organelles found in photosynthetic microorganisms such as bacteria and archaea—can be used for improvements in ultrasound imaging. This seemingly bizarre idea came to engineer Mikhail Shapiro as he was reading an article.
Ultrasound functions by emitting sound waves into people’s tissue and organs. When these waves encounter a structure that has a different density (such as bone), some of the sound waves bounce back and return. If this process is timed, it is possible to establish the depth of the tissue or organ inside the organism, If one times how long this takes, it is possible to establish how deep the tissue or organ is, creating an image of the inside of the body.
This all works well, but there are difficulties if one wants to image something that is not strictly considered major anatomy—for instance, the bloodstream. In the bloodstream, structures known as microbubbles scatter sound waves in a way that allows the flow of blood in the bloodstream to be imaged. However the rather large size of microbubbles does not permit them to be used outside of the bloodstream. One might think the obvious solution to this problem would be to create even smaller microbubbles; however, due to the nature of microbubbles they cannot be made much smaller than they already are.
Taking a completely different approach would allow for a solution: gas vesicles—incredibly small nanostructures—can be used instead of microbubbles in order to image cells. Of course, there are several difficulties and obstacles with this solution as well, but Shapiro and his group have been working on solving these issues. To read more about how gas vesicles may be used in this way, please read this article.
Shapiro and others who worked on this project (Patrick Goodwill, Arkosnato Neogy, David Schaffer, and Steven Conolly of UC Berkeley, and Melissa Yin and F. Stuart Foster) have published a paper online in Nature Nanotechnology tiled “Biogenic gas nanostructures as ultrasonic molecular reporters”.
This discovery is very useful in the medical world, as the new ultrasound can help people track and view the growth of many different cell types (such as neurons and tumor cells) using ultrasound. Ultrasound is a very useful medical tool: it is noninvasive, carries few risks, is very easy to use (as it is portable), and is an effective diagnostic method in medicine. Improvements in this technology will lead to the earlier tracking of diseases and, consequently, to improved health in many different fields of medicine such as cardiology, obstetrics, gynecology, musculoskeletal health, and oncology. Detection of a health problem is the first step towards recovery, and often times treatment is given too late. With improved ultrasound techniques, people may benefit from a quicker diagnosis and longer lives.
This discovery is indeed incredible. The fact that it has been inspired by something found in nature—gas vesicles—makes it even more so. Mikhail Shapiro put it rather well when he said “People have struggled to make synthetic nanoscale imaging agents for ultrasound for many years…To me, it’s quite amazing that we can borrow something that nature has evolved for a completely different purpose and use it for in vivo ultrasound imaging. It shows just how much nature has to offer us as engineers.” Using nature as an inspiration can (and has) lead to many breakthroughs in the medical world. Scientists and engineers alike should use the wonderful resource available to them—and to everyone—in order to make and invent new technologies. These scientists and their research should be supported, as it can be incredibly beneficial to human health and quality of life.
Do you also find that nature has been a useful tool in scientific and technical advances? Do you support scientific research? Please share any thoughts you may have on this discovery (or related discoveries) below.