Talk about upping your shutter speed. A new X-ray laser method is able to image a single mimivirus (that’s a large virus, sure, but it’s still really small) completely just before the energy of the X-ray beam cause the virus to explode in a burst of plasma.
To achieve this, a team of scientists injected a stream of buffer and viruses into the path of the X-ray beam, which was pulsing with a 10-micron-diameter beam. From the resulting diffraction pattern of the photons collected, they were able to accurately rebuild the capsid of the virus.
The rebuilding of the virus isn’t what’s particularly noteworthy here. Rather, its the fact that the researchers were able to identify and collect a sufficient diffraction signal from a single exposure of a single particle even as the X-ray beam is destroying it. Higher energy X-rays and shorter pulses should increase the resolution, and researchers are working on that now.
Coupled with a second study in which researchers were able to image the nanocrystals in proteins via a similar femtosecond X-ray method (both papers were published in the journal Nature), it seems this kind of imaging is on the fast track toward resolutions that can image the structures of single molecules.