Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology
The Weill Institute uses its electron microscope to view the ultrastructure of a range of biological specimens. In a recent experiment, purified proteins on a lipid layer were viewed with the microscope to gain a better understanding of how protein filaments on a lipid layer function. Images produced from the microscope showed that the filament is shaped in the form of a helix and functions like a corkscrew—creating the vesicles within the cell. Without the technology of the electron microscope, this hypothesis never would have been possible.
The institute uses the fluorescence microscope to study cells. It is an optical microscope that utilizes light to excite fluorescent molecules to generate an image. It works by imaging the cell along the z-axis. Researchers are able to stack multiple z-axis images and create a three-dimensional photo of their sample. In a recent experiment, researchers at the institute used the fluorescence microscope to image a yeast cell over time, revealing images of the upregulation of trafficking pathways, and downregulation of cellular transporters.
Several labs at the institute use Saccharomyces cerevisiae, yeast, to study genetics. Yeast is a model organism for molecular genetics research, because it can exist in both haploid and diploid states. A haploid cell contains only one complete set of chromosomes, making it simpler for scientists to work with in genetics research. Scientists can easily isolate mutations in yeast genes and map out particular characteristics. Researchers at the institute often use a technique called tetrad dissection to identify the genetic linkage of mutations and determine where a mutation originates.
Fast protein liquid chromatography (FPLC) machines are used daily in the lab to analyze and purify mixtures of proteins. High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) machines are used to separate, identify, and quantify components in a mixture. Researchers in the lab who use crystallography to identify the structure of a biological molecule use these machines to purify large amounts of biomolecules that crystallize under certain conditions. Once the crystals are formed, researchers use the x-ray beam machines at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) to produce a three-dimensional image of the protein’s structure inside a cell.
Researchers at the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology use mass spectrometry to identify proteins and ultimately answer questions about where they act in the cell and what they do. The tribrid mass spectrometer measures the mass of proteins and peptides and shatters them into smaller fragments. Knowing the mass of peptides and their fragments with such great precision makes it possible for researchers to identify what gene in the human genome created the molecule.
The dissection microscope is used by the institute when performing tetrad dissections on yeast and fungal spores for genetic analysis of mutants. The dissection needle is thin glass, pulled out to its finest possible point. The needle is used to separate spores on a petri dish.
The Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology is a hub for life science research at Cornell University. The institute’s mission is to understand fundamental cellular processes and human diseases through interdisciplinary biological research. Twelve faculty appointed to the institute hail from departments in the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Arts and Sciences, and Engineering. They hold a range of technical expertise, including light and electron microscopy, crystallography, mass spectrometry, proteomics, lipidomics, systems biology, organic synthesis, electron cryomicroscopy, microfluidics, computational modeling, enzymology, genetics, and molecular biology.
“Research at the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology centers around the basic life sciences. It can be hard for people to understand how this research will affect them,” says Scott Emr, Molecular Biology and Genetics, and director of the institute, “but the basic life sciences are the fertile ground where discoveries are made that ultimately have a huge impact on medicine.”
The institute hosts affinity groups, symposia, seminars, and retreats to stimulate collaboration across campus. The Weill Institute Symposium is held each year and brings scientists from around the globe to Cornell. “The symposium is always very exciting. It exposes our graduate students and postdoctorates to the front-edge research that is happening in the world,” says Scott Emr. “At the Weill Institute, we are taking the basic life sciences to the next level—each day asking deeper, more precise questions than the day before.”