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Snapshots of Life: The Hard Working Hepatocyte

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Human hepatocyte

Caption: Magnified image of a hepatocyte: nuclei in blue; actin fibers in red, yellow, orange, and green.
Credit: Donna Beer Stolz, University of Pittsburgh

The humble hepatocyte handles a lot of the body’s maintenance and clean up work. It detoxifies the blood, metabolizing medications and alcohol. It secretes important proteins that regulate carbohydrates and fats—including both the good and bad kinds of cholesterol. It’s also the most common cell in one of the few human organs that regenerate: the liver. When this organ is damaged, hepatocytes begin dividing to repair the tissue.

Its regenerative ability is just one reason that Donna Beer Stolz, a microscopist and cell biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, has been studying the hepatocyte for more than 20 years. She captured this image while conducting one of her experiments. As she was carefully scanning a dish of cells, one particular hepatocyte caught her eye. It was perfectly round. Struck by its symmetry and beauty, Stolz snapped pictures of the cell at different layers and then used software to reconstruct and color the image.

Initially, she used blue dye to label the nuclei (hepatocytes, unlike most cells in our body, often contain more than one nucleus) and red for the structure-supporting actin fibers. But Stolz, whose photographs of cells have won recognition—with Nikon’s Small World and Olympus Bioscapes awards—wasn’t satisfied with the result. It lacked depth and failed to capture the beauty she had seen in that cell. And so, she replaced much of the red with green, orange, and yellow.

Her artistic intuition was rewarded by her photograph’s inclusion in NIH’s Life: Magnified exhibit.


Stolz Lab, Department of Cell Biology, University of Pittsburgh

“Life: Magnified” Online

NIH support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences




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