Photonics, life sciences converge at Salk Institute

A lab in the Waiat Advanced Biophotonics Center at The Salk Institute. Courtesy: Joe Belcovson, Salk Institute for Biological Studies
A lab in the Waiat Advanced Biophotonics Center at The Salk Institute. Courtesy: Joe Belcovson, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

By Lynne Friedmann


Think back on your experience using a microscope. For many of us it was a simple instrument in high school biology class that used visible light to magnify the surface of small, preserved objects. In the last 100 years, the science of microscopy has made phenomenal advances with technology now available that can reveal even the sub-cellular components of living cells.

The frontiers of this new technology — known as biophotonics — were on display at the grand opening of the Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (http://


“We are able to image even single molecules. This was something I was taught (in school) was impossible,” said Salk President William R. Brody before an audience of researchers, board members, and donors who gathered for the dedication and a facilities tour on Feb. 9.

Launched with a $20 million pledge from the Waitt Foundation, the Waitt Advanced Biphotonics Center serves as a state-of-the-art research hub within the Salk Institute, enabling investigators across many disciplines to gain unprecedented insight into the inner workings of cells and tissues.

“It affects every aspects of the science in the institute,” said Inder Verma, a professor in the laboratory of genetics at Salk and holder of the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Chair in Exemplary Life Science.

Biophotonics is the convergence of photonics (the generation, manipulation and detection of light using photons) and the life sciences and is widely regarded as the key science upon which the next generation of clinical tools and biomedical research instrumentation will be based.

By observing how single molecules and cells function in real time and deciphering what goes wrong when they malfunction, scientists will learn, among other things, how certain diseases develop, how a cell turns cancerous, and how neurons in a living brain respond to stress, exercise, learning and diet.

The resolution of conventional optical microscopes is limited by the wavelength of light. Biophotonic yields super-resolution live-cell imaging that allows researchers to capture short videos of fast-moving cellular processes while discerning the precise location of nearly each individual protein they are studying.

A video presentation during the Waitt Center dedication presented images so detailed and powerful they elicited gasps (and even an appreciative whistle) by audience members.

“I did this for the work that will come out of it,” said Ted Waitt, vice chairman of the Salk’s board of trustees, of the Waitt Foundation donation.

“It’s just a tool put in the hands of the right people,” said Waitt. “Let’s see what you can do.”

Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.



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