Snapshots of Life: A Flare for the Dramatic

lipid-covered water drop

Credit: Valentin Romanov, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Oil and water may not mix, but under the right conditions—like those in the photo above—it can sure produce some interesting science that resembles art. You’re looking at a water droplet suspended in an emulsion of olive oil (black and purple) and lipids, molecules that serve as the building blocks of cell membranes. Each lipid has been tagged with a red fluorescent marker, and what look like red and yellow flames are the markers reacting to a beam of UV light. Their glow shows the lipids sticking to the surface of the water droplet, which will soon engulf the droplet to form a single lipid bilayer, which can later be transformed into a lipid bilayer that closely resembles a cell membrane. Scientists use these bubbles, called liposomes, as artificial cells for a variety of research purposes.

In this case, the purpose is structural biology studies. Valentin Romanov, the graduate student at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, who snapped the image, creates liposomes to study proteins that help cells multiply. By encapsulating and letting the proteins interact with lipids in the artificial cell membrane, Romanov and his colleagues in the NIH-supported labs of Bruce Gale at the University of Utah and Adam Frost at the University of California, San Francisco, can freeze and capture their changing 3D structures at various points in the cell division process with high-resolution imaging techniques. These snapshots will help the researchers to understand in finer detail how the proteins work and perhaps to design drugs to manipulate their functions.

Other groups use liposomes as injectable delivery systems to route therapeutic drugs more efficiently in the body. In fact, a few years ago, I highlighted an interesting example of this in cancer research.

But rarely do you see these liposomes being created in such vivid color. Romanov said he came into the lab one day about two years ago and placed a few drops of the emulsion on a slide and looked through the microscope lens. The emulsion contained literally thousands of water droplets destined to become liposomes. This striking one happened to be close to the surface, so he snapped this photo and later entered it in the University of Utah’s Science as Art competition. If you’d like to see some of the other interesting images in the competition, just click on the newspaper article cited below [1]. Enjoy!


[1] Science or Art? Chen D. Deseret News, October 11, 2015


Valentin Romanov (State of Utah Center of Excellence for Biomedical Microfluidics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Bruce Gale (University of Utah)

Frost Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences