Cholesterol: Tiny Molecule, Big Impact


Cholesterol: Tiny Molecule, Big Impact


Cholesterol is found in every cell of the human body. It plays a role in heart disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, and so on, touching nearly every field of medicine. I use cutting-edge chemical imaging technology to map the intricate cholesterol distribution within cells to identify its locations. Visualizing cholesterol is the first step in understanding the much larger, complex role of cholesterol and how it might change in the diseased
state. I first feed cells cholesterol labeled with a rare isotope of oxygen. Then I use high resolution secondary ion mass spectrometry to detect the isotope-enriched signals that are characteristic of the labeled cholesterol molecules. The intensities of the cholesterol-specific
signals detected at each location are used to create an image of the cholesterol distribution. This image shows the cholesterol distribution within a 10 m x 10 m x 2 m internal section of cell. It was created by re-imaging the same cell area thousands of times. Because a small
amount of material is sputtered from the sample each time an image is acquired, each new image was acquired at a slightly deeper position inside the cell. These images were stacked and aligned to create this 3-dimensional rendering.


Ashley Yeager




Professor Mary L. Kraft


Copyright 2016 Ashley Yeager


Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Original Format





Ashley Yeager, “Cholesterol: Tiny Molecule, Big Impact,” Image of Research: Celebrating Student Research at Illinois, accessed November 29, 2020,