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Updated 2:12 PM EST, Wed, Jan 29, 2020

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'Fingerprinting' Cell Metabolism to Help Obesity, Diabetes Studies

Adult Caenorhabditis elegans

(Photo : Wikimedia Commons) Adult Caenorhabditis elegans

Professor Ji-Xin Cheng, from the Wledon School of Biomedical Engineering and Department of Chemistry at the Purdue University, and his colleagues have used new imaging technologies to track the lipid metabolism of cells to find exactly where the body's cholesterol is stored, potentially aiding research in diabetes, obesity and longevity.

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Cheng said that the new method of imaging lets the scientists measure the amount of cholesterol stored as well as the oxidation and desaturation of lipids, which could result in the reduced ability of cells to use insulin.

A transparent species of nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, was used as the test subjects to extensively study the effect of lipid metabolism on disease and aging.

"This animal is transparent, so we can see what's happening in real time," Cheng said. "We can follow the metabolism inside the animal."

The scientists used hyperspectral stimulated Raman scattering microscopy, an imaging platform which can recognize and follow specific molecules by measuring their vibrational spectrum  with a laser, a kind of spectral fingerprint.

While standard Raman microscopes required hours upon hours to get results, the new technique the researchers used works at high speeds , allowing the team to measure the changes in the worms while they were happening.

"The advantage of being able to observe what is happening in real time in a live tissue is that you can follow the same cell over time, just like following the same person over time to track a patient's health," Cheng said.

Being able to map the degree of cholesterol storage, lipid oxidation and unsaturation inside living cells would provide breakthroughs in studies on diabetes, obesity and longevity in animals as well as humans.

"This work is a result of a successful collaboration between our labs. The new technology has allowed us to observe changes in lipids in a live animal," said colleague Heidi Tissenbaum, a professor in the UM Medical School's Program in Gene Function and Expression.

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