Biology through a lens
Rockefeller’s Bio-Imaging Resource Center provides a place where scientists can watch the processes of life unfold on the tiniest of scales
Much of biology is, at its essence, the study of very tiny things. Cells, the building blocks of all living organisms, are on average just one-tenth of a millimeter in diameter. From there — organelles, chromosomes, proteins — things just get smaller. To understand the processes that take place on such a miniscule scale, you need a microscope. And that’s where the situation gets complicated.
An explosion in imaging
Traditionally, many of the questions in cell biology have used the tools of molecular biology to make observations indirectly. Now, with improved technologies and an explosion of genetic studies, scientists can see many cellular processes directly, and even watch them unfold in real time.
Fireworks in a cell
North has been fascinated with microscopes since she was a teenager. “I looked down my first fluorescence microscope in my second year of university, and that was it. I said this is what I want to do,” she says. She completed graduate work and two postdocs in cell biology, but always specialized in microscopy. She came to Rockefeller to establish the bio-imaging center from Manchester,U.K., in 2000. “Maybe it’s the artist in me that was drawn to this career. I see the images that come out of our facility and they remind me of fireworks. When people see them they simply say ‘Wow!’” North says.
Turning images into discoveries
Collecting images is not as easy as many budding scientists believe, and magnification only gets you so far. In order to produce useful images, microscopists have to also consider resolution, the ability to distinguish between closely placed objects, and contrast, the required variation in intensity necessary to create a visible image. Sample preparation is also important. If a sample is poorly prepared, for instance if there’s a lot of background staining or if the wrong chemicals have been used to fix a certain structure, or even if the wrong thickness of glass coverslip has been used, no amount of technology will be able to create a good image.
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