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PALM Suitcase

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When Group Leaders Eric Betzig and Harald Hess first visited Janelia, they brought their PALM microscope – which would later garner a Nobel Prize – packed in a suitcase.
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When physicist Harald Hess flew to visit Janelia for the first time, his carry-on suitcase held deconstructed pieces of a six-foot-long microscope that he and colleague Eric Betzig, a fellow physicist, had built in Hess’s living room. Their invention, known as PALM (photoactivated localization microscopy), enables scientists to image live cells in super-resolution, and in turn, inspect cellular and subcellular events in unprecedented detail.

PALM uses special light-activated fluorescent probes, allowing scientists to selectively choose individual molecules, or sets of molecules, to image. Each frame captures a different subpopulation of glowing molecules, and after taking thousands of these snapshots, scientists can compile them into a single, super-resolved image. In 2014, Betzig and colleagues received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for conceiving and developing the technique.

A decade or so after Hess’s initial visit to Janelia, he keeps the gray, hard-shelled “PALM suitcase” close by. It’s stored beneath a bench in his Janelia lab, complete with TSA documentation.