The View From Here

Reach of Microscopes

Unbounded creativity—and powerful computers—make possible the latest devices designed to peer into the deepest recesses of organs and cells.

Photography has come a long way in the two decades since digital cameras all but relegated picture taking on film to a chapter in the history book of technology. Image-processing tools like Photoshop and mobile apps like Instagram have turned anyone with aspirations into a postproduction touch-up artist. Revolutionary, yes. But it’s nothing compared to the evolutionary explosion in imaging techniques that the digital crossover has unleashed in laboratories.

“Every major advance in imaging technology precipitates a new round of breakthroughs in cell biology,” says structural biologist Grant Jensen, an HHMI investigator at the California Institute of Technology. Seeing is the quickest route to understanding, says Jensen, who has been using a technique similar to a computed tomography (CT) scan to render visible the molecular machinery inside cells in three-dimensional splendor.

By combining advanced microscopes, new-generation cameras, innovative methods of acquiring raw data, and computational processing of the data, HHMI scientists and others are creating unprecedented depictions of biology’s magnificent marriage of form and function. Think of the leaps from still photography to movies, from black-and-white to color, and from silent to sound, and you begin to get a sense of how much more of life these pumped-up imaging tools are allowing researchers to see.

Neuroscientist Mark Schnitzer, an HHMI investigator at Stanford University, has been working with colleagues to extend the reach of their microscopes to watch ensembles of cells deep inside the brains of live, mobile animals. Schnitzer has been thinking hard about the evolution of imaging in biology. As he sees it, there has been a three-phase progression since the 17th century when the likes of Robert Hooke in England and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in Holland first ushered microscopy into scientific investigations.


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