No Strings Attached

Visionary thinkers intent on changing the game in science and technology begin with one crucial question: What would it take?

Finding out entails taking some courageous first steps into totally uncharted territory—and that requires a partner like Caltech, and unrestricted funding.

Using unrestricted funding given by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in 2001, Caltech acquired the world’s best electron microscope at the time: a state-of-the-art FEI Polara transmission electron microscope. That equipment, in turn, helped Caltech recruit biologist Grant Jensen in 2002.

Using the electron microscope in concert with digital photography, Jensen saw potential for imaging living cells extremely close to their natural, or native, state. Successes piled up early: Jensen and his team revealed to the world, for the first time, certain structures inside bacteria and individual HIV-1 virus-like particles. This demonstration of promise led to new funding from federal sources and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, ultimately fueling the expansion of Jensen’s team, continued breakthroughs, and rapid growth of a new field called cryo-electron tomography, or cryo-ET.

Jensen’s story shows the power of unrestricted funding at Caltech. These resources allow the scientific community to bridge the gap between limitless ideas and the kinds of demonstrable results that earn funds and resources from more traditional sources.

“The Moore Foundation trusted that Caltech would use the money wisely, allowing the Institute to overcome [a] barrier—they solved the chicken or egg problem,” says Jensen. “After five or six years it became very clear that imaging cells with cryo-ET was opening dramatic new windows into the cell, and that attracted just the very best structural biology postdocs [to Caltech] . . . . We’ve seen things that no one even knew existed, inspiring completely new directions of inquiry in bacterial cell biology.”

Read more stories about the impact of unrestricted gifts in the Fall 2015 issue of Caltech’s alumni magazine, Engineering & Science.

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