Advanced Microscopy Techniques Give Scientists Beautiful and Unprecedented Views Inside Living Cells [PHOTO/VIDEO FEATURE]

This year’s Science/AAAS Conference theme was “The Beauty and Benefits of Science” and from press conferences to symposia, the beauty of science was on ample display, as scientists dazzled with amazing images and captivating computer-reconstructed videos of cellular and molecular activity (often depicting real-time dynamics!).

And they’re not just pretty pictures, or course; these images are the result of combined advances in microscopic imaging and fluorescence (protein) technology designed to give scientists the highest resolution viewing of the fundamental mechanics and dynamics of cells and the myriad molecules that operate within them.

This past Saturday (at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, Mass.) featured a captivating and stimulating symposia called “Innovations in Imaging: Seeing is Believing”  and featured three physicists and three biologists (a combination of disciplines not normally seen at such conferences), several of whom are affiliated with the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass., which has become a leading center for innovation in biophysics and biological imaging.

In a press statement, the organizer of this interdisciplinary panel, Amy S. Gladfelter of Dartmouth College and MBL, said:

“We are beginning to understand the basis for cell organization at unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution through the creative application of fundamental physics to microscopy.. This symposium will help motivate the next phase of interdisciplinary approaches to advance the visualization of life, from the scale of a single molecule to the whole organism.”

These combined imaging techniques not only enable unprecedented visualization of basic cell processes, but they can also be used for diagnosing disease states such as metastasizing cancer or microbial infection. They can also be used to screen chemical libraries for new therapeutic compounds for pharmaceuticals.

Gladfelter continues:

“These images also bring us to a beautiful world beyond the grasp of our normal senses. In this way microscopes give us beauty and [biological or medical] application, often in the same image.”

The following is a selection of remarkable images and videos presented at the symposia with explanatory captions. We welcome your comments and thoughts on these truly beautiful (and medically useful) images

Cellular Structures Are Seen by Bessel Beam Plane Illumination Microscopy


[above] Cellular structures are seen by Bessel beam plane illumination microscopy. Clockwise from upper left: membrane ruffles in a monkey kidney cell; chromosomes (green) and golgi (magenta) in a dividing pig kidney cell; mitochondria in a living pig kidney cell; and microtubules (green) and nuclei (magenta) in a pair of human osteosarcoma cells. Credit: Eric Betzig/HHMI


A Living Cell (MDCK) Expressing Septin Molecules


(above) This is a fluorescence image of a living cell (MDCK) expressing septin molecules linked to green fluorescent protein (GFP). The image was recorded with the Fluorescence LC-PolScope and shows fluorescent septin fibers in color, indicating that the fluorescence is polarized and the septin molecules are aligned in the fibers. Credit: Rudolf Oldenbourg/MBL


LC-PolScope Reveals Crane Fly Spermatocytes in Exquisite Detail


(above) These are spermatocytes from the crane fly, Nephrotoma suturalis. This image was generated using a Nikon Microphot SA equipped with a liquid crystal universal compensator, a so-called LC-PolScope (Cambridge Research and Instrumentation, Woburn MA). With the LC-PolScope, birefringence of meiotic spindles is revealed with striking contrast, regardless of specimen orientation, and thus, the spindle fibers, actually bundles of microtubules, are clearly imaged as bright structures on the non-birefringent (or weakly birefringent) background cytoplasm. Credit: Rudolf Oldenbourg/MBL


Using Light Polarization for Advanced Microscopy

The capacity of microscopes to reach beyond the senses is well appreciated by MBL Senior Scientist Rudolf Oldenbourg, who  presented his research at “New Frontiers in Polarized Light Microscopy for Live Cell Imaging” at the recent AAAS conference.

“Polarization is a basic property of light that is often overlooked, because the human eye is not sensitive to polarization. Therefore, we don’t have an intuitive understanding of it and optical phenomena that are based on polarization either elude us or we find them difficult to comprehend,” Oldenbourg states.

The polarized light microscope translates polarization effects so they can be perceived by our senses, in this case by our eyes, and makes them amenable to quantitative and analytical analysis. At the MBL, we are developing polarized light imaging techniques … that clearly reveal the otherwise invisible dynamics of single molecules and molecular assemblies in organelles, cells, and tissues.”

Watch a video of cell division (below) made with time-lapse liquid crystal polarized light microscopy (LC-PolScope) [description below, article continues]:

[above] The events of cell division during meiosis I in a living insect spermatocyte, beginning at diakinesis through telophase to the near completion of cytokinesis. Testes from the Crane fly Nephrotoma suturalis were observed with time-lapse liquid crystal polarized light microscopy (LC-PolScope, MBL, Woods Hole MA, and PerkinElmer, Hopkinton MA). Movie images display the naturally occurring birefringence of cell organelles and structures that are made up of aligned molecules, such as the meiotic spindle and mitochondria. Horizontal image width is 56 µm. Credits: James LaFountain and Rudolf Oldenbourg/MBL


More About MBL

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery and improving the human condition through research and education in biology, biomedicine, and environmental science. Founded in 1888 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the MBL is an independent, nonprofit corporation. A corps of more than 270 scientists and support personnel pursue research year-round at the MBL, joined each year by more than 400 visiting scientists, summer staff, and research associates from hundreds of institutions around the world. Among the scientists with a significant affiliation with the MBL are 55 Nobel Laureates (since 1929).

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