Remember that kid on the block who always had the coolest toys the day they came out? Well, when it comes to imaging tools in life science research, having those toys can make or break new discoveries. Two of the field’s leading funders are inviting you over to play.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation just entered a partnership to create the Advanced Imaging Center, which will bring scientists to HHMI’s Virginia-based research campus to use its leading imaging technology, as opposed to trying to fund the distribution of such tools. The collaboration between HHMI and Moore, two of the country's largest science funders, just launched with a $4.9 million startup investment.
HHMI has always focused on advancing technologies for research, but this is a unique approach in that, rather than making grants for new lab equipment, will allow the center to keep its own equipment at the very leading edge, while increasing accessibility. It’s similar to the strategy behind the free availability of marine research vessels like Eric and Wendy Schmidt’s elite ship the RV Falkor. Not everyone can have a boat, much less a really fancy boat.
In the case of life science research, advanced microscopes are becoming indispensable for major breakthroughs. They also take years to become commercially available once developed, and are elaborate to the point that they don’t travel well or work right out of the box. HHMI and Moore came to the conclusion that it made more sense to let others use one set of tools.
The center, based at HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, currently has five such tools not widely available. They include a microscope developed by Nobel Laureate Steven Chu and HHMI head Robert Tijan that can image complex biochemical reactions such as DNA replication and repair. Another microscope run by Eric Betzig uses a sheet of patterned light to look inside living cells, capable of viewing their 3D shapes and features in higher detail than ever before.
A further benefit of this approach is that the Janelia campus can cycle through microscopes as they become dated or widely available. Once technologies become commercial enough, the AIC will put their model on the curb and replace it with another rare microscope. This bypasses the problem of researchers always needing to upgrade to the new iPhone of microscopes.
This is actually the second big partnership between HHMI and Moore, with the first being a $75 million plant science research program. Moore is the largest science and research funder in the country by annual giving, with programs on data-driven discovery, earthquake early warning systems, and marine microbiology, to name a few. HHMI is perhaps best known for its Investigators program, which puts researchers on its payroll and gives them significant latitude. The Janelia campus opened in 2006 to bring together leading biomedical researchers on collaborative projects.
To apply to use the Advanced Imaging Center, researchers can respond to calls for proposals, which will happen several times a year, with the first one expected in July. HHMI, Moore and other imaging experts will review proposals on scientific merit, and those selected will pack their bags and head out to microscope summer camp.