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Snapshots of Life: Behold the Beauty of the Eye

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Colorized cross section of a mouse eye

Credit: Bryan William Jones and Robert E. Marc, University of Utah

The eye is a complex marvel of nature. In fact, there are some 70 to 80 kinds of cells in the mammalian retina. This image beautifully illuminates the eye’s complexity, on a cellular level—showing how these cells are arranged and wired together to facilitate sight.

“Reading” the image from left to right, we first find the muscle cells, in peach, that move the eye in its socket. The green layer, next, is the sclera—the white part of the eye. The spongy-looking layers that follow provide blood to the retina. The thin layer of yellow is the retinal pigment epithelium. The photoreceptors, in shades of pink, detect photons and transmit the information to the next layer down: the bipolar and horizontal cells (purple). From the bipolar cells, information flows to the amacrine and ganglion cells (blue, green, and turquoise) and then out of the retina via the optic nerve (the white plume that seems to billow out across the upper-right side of the eye), which transmits data to the brain for processing.

Bryan Jones, an NIH-funded retinal neuroscientist at the University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center—and a photographer—used a colorful technique called Computational Molecular Phenotyping (CMP) to create this image. Developed by Moran’s Robert Marc, CMP associates each cell type with a color fingerprint reflecting its unique metabolism and chemistry. Here, Jones labeled retinal cells with antibodies against metabolites called taurine, glutamine, and glutamate. He then assigned the signals from each antibody to red, green, and blue channels in image processing software, creating this striking piece of artwork.

But, there’s more to this picture, which is featured in the Life: Magnified exhibit, than its visual appeal. Marc and Jones are leading the effort to map the connectome of the eye: identifying the eye’s cell types and how they are wired together to transmit information to the brain. They’re using CMP in this mapping process, to help them understand how vision works in a normal, healthy eye. They’ll then apply their findings to blinding diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration, in which the retinal structure and circuitry changes as the disease progresses. They hope this new knowledge will help researchers develop treatments to rescue vision loss.


Robert E. Marc, Marc Lab, Moran Eye Center, University of Utah School of Medicine

Bryan William Jones, Moran Eye Center, University of Utah School of Medicine

Webvision: Blog, University of Utah

“Life: Magnified” Online

NIH support: National Eye Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences


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