New Microscope Puts the Life Back in Biology (with Videos!)

Life moves.

Or more precisely, as neuroscientist Eric Betzig and his colleagues put it in today’s issue of Science: “Every living thing is a complex thermodynamic pocket of reduced entropy through which matter and energy flow continuously.”

Betzig’s name may sound familiar. Two weeks ago he won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing fancy microscopes. In today’s Science paper he shows off the latest tech, dubbed ‘optical lattice microscopy’, which captures not only the physical structure of a biological sample, but the way it changes in space over time.

Video credit: Betzig Lab, HHMI/Janelia Research Campus, and Science magazine

The microscope works by passing a sample (a gray cell, in the above video demonstration) through a sheet, or lattice, of light beams (the blue/green square in the video). When the lattice intersects the sample, it creates a fluorescent-orange snapshot of that particular two-dimensional plane. As the lattice moves through the sample, the microscope acquires a series of these snapshots, which can then be put together into a dynamic three-dimensional image.

If none of those words make sense to you, that’s OK. This is a case where the technology’s output is far more interesting than its mechanics.

For example, take a look at the video at the top of this post. It shows the roundworm C. elegans in a very early stage of development, dividing from two cells into six cells. The bright green color is labeling AIR-2, a protein that’s essential for cellular division. The new microscope allows the researchers to see how, exactly, this protein associates with chromosomes in live embryos.

The technology can get even more fine-grained than that. This video, for example, shows the division of a single HeLa cell (a human cell derived from an immortal cancer line). You see the cell’s chromosomes in red-orange, moving apart just as you might remember from mitosis cartoons in your biology textbook. The chromosomes are surrounded by stick-like microtubules, fast-acting structures that help the chromosomes do their thing. The microtubules are color-coded to denote their speed.

Video credit: Betzig Lab, HHMI/Janelia Research Campus, the Mimori-Kiyosue Lab, RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, and Science magazine

The microscope can also capture interactions between different kinds of cells. The video below shows a T-cell (orange), one of the soldiers of the immune system, interacting with another cell (in blue) and forming the so-called immunological synapse.

Video credit: Betzig Lab, HHMI/Janelia Research Campus, the Lippincott-Schwartz Lab, National Institutes of Health, and Science magazine

The Betzig lab and its collaborators have made many other videos using the new microscope; you can see them all here. The researchers say the technology has more potential than they’ll ever be able to realize alone, so they’re keen to share the designs and protocols with other groups. They’ve put one microscope in Janelia’s Advanced Imaging Center, where visiting scientists can use it for free, and have helped scientists at Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco set up their own.

Here’s to putting life back into biology.


Credit for top video: Betzig Lab, HHMI/Janelia Research Campus, the Bembenek Lab, University of Tennessee, and Science magazine.