Cellular imaging goes 3D

New technology give us 3D insight.

What is going on in your cells? This is a question that now gets its debut on the big screen, in a way. A team of scientists have developed a microscope that allows researchers to look inside cells in real time and track subcellular processes. The team was led by Erik Betzig, this year’s joint Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.

The breakthrough made by Betzig and his team comes from modifying light beams such that they perform more efficiently and more clearly, while maintaining the integrity of the images gathered. Before this, scientists had to make significant trade-offs that led to varying quality in the data.  The major breakthrough of this method comes from the fact that it significantly reduces the photo toxicity seen in the previous methods, as well as increasing the speed of recording.

Cellular imaging is not new, and there are many methods of staining cells and peeking inside. But, many of these staining techniques inhibit cellular activity. For example, proteins are integral components to cellular activity and their reactions can only take place in small ranges such as specific pH and temperature ranges; any disruption will cause the process to stop by breaking those proteins down into their constituent parts. While some newer methods allow scientists to look at cellular processes without too much cell damage, these can only provide high-definition, three-dimensional images – and scientists need to be able to see what’s going on in real time.

Scientist seek to understand the real time processes of subcellular activity, but the longer we observe the cells with current techniques, the further degraded these processes become. Betzig summarized this problem by saying the technology used to increase either the clarity of the images and the technology to gather real time data are basically opposed to one another.

Subcellular processes happen very quickly, and to maintain their integrity in conjunction with capturing the quickness at which these processes take place is a problem Betzig’s team tries to address with the new imaging technology.

The method developed by Betzig is not completely new. There are other methods that allow for this 4D analysis, but their practical application is limited because they tend to damage the cellular structures too much to gather valuable data. The research outlined in Betzig’s article published in the journal Science, “Lattice light-sheet microscopy: Imaging molecules to embryos at high spatiotemporal resolution,” gives us the newest technology that allows us to observe subcellular activities while maintaining the integrity of the cellular structures and processes.

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