Measuring Chemical Changes Inside Living Cells at the Advanced Light Source (ALS)

The Science

Understanding how microbes adapt to changing chemical environments is a critical aspect of being able to “put microbes to work” solving DOE challenges.  Berkeley Lab scientists have now shown that Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectromicroscopy at the ALS can follow cellular chemistry within living microbes in real time.  The synchrotron FTIR technique provides a powerful new tool to understand the response of living cells to chemical stresses involved in synthesis of biofuels compounds, breakdown of cellulosic biomass, and a wide variety of other systems relevant to DOE missions.  Being able to make these dynamic measurements continuously inside selected living cells dramatically increases the usefulness and reliability of information that traditionally is derived from cells that have been killed and broken apart.  A new experimental station is nearing completion at the ALS to enable further biological and environmental applications of the technology.


Determining the transient chemical properties of the intracellular environment can elucidate the paths through which a biological system adapts to changes in its environment, for example, the mechanisms that enable some obligate anaerobic bacteria to survive a sudden exposure to oxygen. Researchers used high-resolution Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectromicroscopy to continuously follow cellular chemistry within living obligate anaerobes by monitoring hydrogen bond structures in their cellular water. They observed a sequence of well orchestrated molecular events that correspond to changes in cellular processes in those cells that survive, but only accumulation of radicals in those that do not. Researchers thereby can interpret the adaptive response in terms of transient intracellular chemistry and link it to oxygen stress and survival. This ability to monitor chemical changes at the molecular level can yield important insights into a wide range of adaptive responses.

BER Program Manager

Amy Swain

U.S. Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research (SC-33)
Biological Systems Science Division
[email protected]


Holman, H.-Y. N., E. Wozei, Z. Lin, L. R. Comolli, D. A. Ball, S. Borglin, M. W. Fields, T. C. Hazen, and K. H. Downing. 2009. “Real-time Molecular Monitoring of Chemical Environment in Obligate Anaerobes during Oxygen Adaptive Response,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 106, 12599–604. DOI:10.1073/pnas.0902070106.