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cell biology

Capturing Viral Shedding in Action

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Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Hamilton, MT

You’ve probably seen some amazing high-resolution images of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, on television and the web. What you might not know is that many of these images, including the ones shown here, were produced at Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), a part of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that’s located in the small Montana town of Hamilton.

The head of RML’s Electron Microscopy Unit, Elizabeth Fischer, was the researcher who took this portrait of SARS-CoV-2. For more than 25 years, Fischer has snapped stunning images of dangerous viruses and microbes, including some remarkable shots of the deadly Ebola virus. She also took some of the first pictures of the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels and continues to circulate at low levels in people.

The NIAID facility uses a variety of microscopy techniques, including state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). But the eye-catching image you see here was taken with a classic scanning electron microscope (SEM).

SEM enables visualization of particles, including viruses, that are too small to be seen with traditional light microscopy. It does so by focusing electrons, instead of light, into a beam that scans the surface of a sample that’s first been dehydrated, chemically preserved, and then coated with a thin layer of metal. As electrons bounce off the sample’s surface, microscopists such as Fischer are able to capture its precise topology. The result is a gray-scale micrograph like the one you see above on the left. To make the image easier to interpret, Fischer hands the originals off to RML’s Visual Medical Arts Department, which uses colorization to make key features pop like they do in the image on the right.

So, what exactly are you seeing in this image? The orange-brown folds and protrusions are part of the surface of a single cell that’s been infected with SARS-CoV-2. This particular cell comes from a commonly studied primate kidney epithelial cell line. The small, blue spheres emerging from the cell surface are SARS-CoV-2 particles.

This picture is quite literally a snapshot of viral shedding, a process in which viral particles are released from a dying cell. This image gives us a window into how devastatingly effective SARS-CoV-2 appears to be at co-opting a host’s cellular machinery: just one infected cell is capable of releasing thousands of new virus particles that can, in turn, be transmitted to others.

While capturing a fixed sample on the microscope is fairly straightforward for a pro like Fischer, developing a sample like this one involves plenty of behind-the-scenes trial and error by NIAID investigators. As you might imagine, to see the moment that viruses emerge from an infected cell, you have to get the timing just right.

By capturing many shots of the coronavirus using the arsenal of microscopes available at RML and elsewhere, researchers are learning more every day about how SARS-CoV-2 enters a cell, moves inside it, and then emerges to infect other cells. In addition to advancing scientific knowledge, Fischer notes that images like these also hold the remarkable power to make an invisible enemy visible to the world at large.

Making SARS-CoV-2 tangible helps to demystify the challenges that all of us now face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope is it will encourage each and every one of us to do our part to fight it, whether that means digging into the research, working on the front lines, or staying at home to prevent transmission and flatten the curve. And, if you could use some additional inspiration, don’t miss the NIAID’s image gallery on Flickr, which includes some of Fischer’s finest work.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Rocky Mountain Laboratories (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Elizabeth Fischer (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Finding Beauty in Cell Stress

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Most stressful situations that we experience in daily life aren’t ones that we’d choose to repeat. But the cellular stress response captured in this video is certainly worth repeating a few times, so you can track what happens when two cancer cells get hit with stressors.

In this movie of two highly stressed osteosarcoma cells, you first see the appearance of many droplet-like structures (green). This is followed by a second set of droplets (magenta) and, finally, the fusion of both types of droplets.

These droplets are composed of fluorescently labeled stress-response proteins, either G3BP or UBQLN2 (Ubiquilin-2). Each protein is undergoing a fascinating process, called phase separation, in which a non-membrane bound compartment of the cytoplasm emerges and constrains the motion of proteins within it. Subsequently, the proteins fuse with like proteins to form larger droplets, in much the same way that raindrops merge on a car’s windshield.

Julia Riley, an undergraduate student in the NIH-supported lab of Heidi Hehnly and lab of Carlos Castañeda, Syracuse University, NY, shot this movie using the sophisticated tools of fluorescence microscopy. It’s the next installment in our series featuring winners of the 2019 Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest, sponsored by the American Society for Cell Biology. The contest honors the discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP), which—together with a rainbow of other fluorescent proteins—has enabled researchers to visualize proteins and their dynamic activities inside cells for the last 25 years.

Riley and colleagues suspect that, in this case, phase separation is a protective measure that allows proteins to wall themselves off from the rest of the cell during stressful conditions. In this way, the proteins can create new functional units within the cell. The researchers are working to learn much more about what this interesting behavior entails as a basic organizing principle in the cell and how it works.

Even more intriguing is that similar stress-responding proteins are commonly altered in people with the devastating neurologic condition known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a group of rare neurological diseases that involve the progressive deterioration of neurons responsible for voluntary movements such as chewing, walking, and talking. There’s been the suggestion that these phase separation droplets may seed the formation of the larger protein aggregates that accumulate in the motor neurons of people with this debilitating and fatal condition.

Castañeda and Hehnly, working with J. Paul Taylor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, earlier reported that Ubiquilin-2 forms stress-induced droplets in multiple cell types [1]. More recently, they showed that mutations in Ubiquilin-2 have been linked to ALS changes in the way that the protein undergoes phase separation in a test tube [2].

While the proteins in this award-winning video aren’t mutant forms, Riley is now working on the sequel, featuring versions of the Ubiquilin-2 protein that you’d find in some people with ALS. She hopes to capture how those mutations might produce a different movie and what that might mean for understanding ALS.


[1] Ubiquitin Modulates Liquid-Liquid Phase Separation of UBQLN2 via Disruption of Multivalent Interactions. Dao TP, Kolaitis R-M, Kim HJ, O’Donovan K, Martyniak B, Colicino E, Hehnly H, Taylor JP, Castañeda CA. Molecular Cell. 2018 Mar 15;69(6):965-978.e6.

[2] ALS-Linked Mutations Affect UBQLN2 Oligomerization and Phase Separation in a Position- and Amino Acid-Dependent Manner. Dao TP, Martyniak B, Canning AJ, Lei Y, Colicino EG, Cosgrove MS, Hehnly H, Castañeda CA. Structure. 2019 Jun 4;27(6):937-951.e5.


Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Castañeda Lab (Syracuse University, NY)

Hehnly Lab (Syracuse University)

Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest (American Society for Cell Biology, Bethesda, MD)

2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, Sweden)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

The Perfect Cytoskeletal Storm

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Ever thought about giving cell biology a whirl? If so, I suggest you sit down and take a look at this full-blown cytoskeletal “storm,” which provides a spectacular dynamic view of the choreography of life.

Before a cell divides, it undergoes a process called mitosis that copies its chromosomes and produces two identical nuclei. As part of this process, microtubules, which are structural proteins that help make up the cell’s cytoskeleton, reorganize the newly copied chromosomes into a dense, football-shaped spindle. The position of this mitotic spindle tells the cell where to divide, allowing each daughter cell to contain its own identical set of DNA.

To gain a more detailed view of microtubules in action, researchers designed an experimental system that utilizes an extract of cells from the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). As the video begins, a star-like array of microtubules (red) radiate outward in an apparent effort to prepare for cell division. In this configuration, the microtubules continually adjust their lengths with the help of the protein EB-1 (green) at their tips. As the microtubules grow and bump into the walls of a lab-generated, jelly-textured enclosure (dark outline), they buckle—and the whole array then whirls around the center.

Abdullah Bashar Sami, a Ph.D. student in the NIH-supported lab of Jesse “Jay” Gatlin, University of Wyoming, Laramie, shot this movie as a part his basic research to explore the still poorly understood physical forces generated by microtubules. The movie won first place in the 2019 Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest sponsored by the American Society for Cell Biology. The contest honors the 25th anniversary of the discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP), which transformed cell biology and earned the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for three scientists who had been supported by NIH.

Like many movies, the setting was key to this video’s success. The video was shot inside a microfluidic chamber, designed in the Gatlin lab, to study the physics of microtubule assembly just before cells divide. The tiny chamber holds a liquid droplet filled with the cell extract.

When the liquid is exposed to an ultra-thin beam of light, it forms a jelly-textured wall, which traps the molecular contents inside [1]. Then, using time-lapse microscopy, the researchers watch the mechanical behavior of GFP-labeled microtubules [2] to see how they work to position the mitotic spindle. To do this, microtubules act like shapeshifters—scaling to adjust to differences in cell size and geometry.

The Gatlin lab is continuing to use their X. laevis system to ask fundamental questions about microtubule assembly. For many decades, both GFP and this amphibian model have provided cell biologists with important insights into the choreography of life, and, as this work shows, we can expect much more to come!


[1] Microtubule growth rates are sensitive to global and local changes in microtubule plus-end density. Geisterfer ZM, Zhu D, Mitchison T, Oakey J, Gatlin JC. November 20, 2019.

[2] Tau-based fluorescent protein fusions to visualize microtubules. Mooney P, Sulerud T, Pelletier JF, Dilsaver MR, et al. Cytoskeleton (Hoboken). 2017 Jun;74(6):221-232.


Mitosis (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Gatlin Lab (University of Wyoming, Laramie)

Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest (American Society for Cell Biology, Bethesda, MD)

2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, Sweden)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Seeing the Cytoskeleton in a Whole New Light

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It’s been 25 years since researchers coaxed a bacterium to synthesize an unusual jellyfish protein that fluoresced bright green when irradiated with blue light. Within months, another group had also fused this small green fluorescent protein (GFP) to larger proteins to make their whereabouts inside the cell come to light—like never before.

To mark the anniversary of this Nobel Prize-winning work and show off the rainbow of color that is now being used to illuminate the inner workings of the cell, the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) recently held its Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest. Over the next few months, my blog will feature some of the most eye-catching entries—starting with this video that will remind those who grew up in the 1980s of those plasma balls that, when touched, light up with a simulated bolt of colorful lightning.

This video, which took third place in the ASCB contest, shows the cytoskeleton of a frequently studied human breast cancer cell line. The cytoskeleton is made from protein structures called microtubules, made visible by fluorescently tagging a protein called doublecortin (orange). Filaments of another protein called actin (purple) are seen here as the fine meshwork in the cell periphery.

The cytoskeleton plays an important role in giving cells shape and structure. But it also allows a cell to move and divide. Indeed, the motion in this video shows that the complex network of cytoskeletal components is constantly being organized and reorganized in ways that researchers are still working hard to understand.

Jeffrey van Haren, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, shot this video using the tools of fluorescence microscopy when he was a postdoctoral researcher in the NIH-funded lab of Torsten Wittman, University of California, San Francisco.

All good movies have unusual plot twists, and that’s truly the case here. Though the researchers are using a breast cancer cell line, their primary interest is in the doublecortin protein, which is normally found in association with microtubules in the developing brain. In fact, in people with mutations in the gene that encodes this protein, neurons fail to migrate properly during development. The resulting condition, called lissencephaly, leads to epilepsy, cognitive disability, and other neurological problems.

Cancer cells don’t usually express doublecortin. But, in some of their initial studies, the Wittman team thought it would be much easier to visualize and study doublecortin in the cancer cells. And so, the researchers tagged doublecortin with an orange fluorescent protein, engineered its expression in the breast cancer cells, and van Haren started taking pictures.

This movie and others helped lead to the intriguing discovery that doublecortin binds to microtubules in some places and not others [1]. It appears to do so based on the ability to recognize and bind to certain microtubule geometries. The researchers have since moved on to studies in cultured neurons.

This video is certainly a good example of the illuminating power of fluorescent proteins: enabling us to see cells and their cytoskeletons as incredibly dynamic, constantly moving entities. And, if you’d like to see much more where this came from, consider visiting van Haren’s Twitter gallery of microtubule videos here:


[1] Doublecortin is excluded from growing microtubule ends and recognizes the GDP-microtubule lattice. Ettinger A, van Haren J, Ribeiro SA, Wittmann T. Curr Biol. 2016 Jun 20;26(12):1549-1555.


Lissencephaly Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Wittman Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest (American Society for Cell Biology, Bethesda, MD)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Defining Neurons in Technicolor

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Brain Architecture
Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle

Can you identify a familiar pattern in this image’s square grid? Yes, it’s the outline of the periodic table! But instead of organizing chemical elements, this periodic table sorts 46 different types of neurons present in the visual cortex of a mouse brain.

Scientists, led by Hongkui Zeng at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle, constructed this periodic table by assigning colors to their neuronal discoveries based upon their main cell functions [1]. Cells in pinks, violets, reds, and oranges have inhibitory electrical activity, while those in greens and blues have excitatory electrical activity.

For any given cell, the darker colors indicate dendrites, which receive signals from other neurons. The lighter colors indicate axons, which transmit signals. Examples of electrical properties—the number and intensity of their “spikes”—appear along the edges of the table near the bottom.

To create this visually arresting image, Zeng’s NIH-supported team injected dye-containing probes into neurons. The probes are engineered to carry genes that make certain types of neurons glow bright colors under the microscope.

This allowed the researchers to examine a tiny slice of brain tissue and view each colored neuron’s shape, as well as measure its electrical response. They followed up with computational tools to combine these two characteristics and classify cell types based on their shape and electrical activity. Zeng’s team could then sort the cells into clusters using a computer algorithm to avoid potential human bias from visually interpreting the data.

Why compile such a detailed atlas of neuronal subtypes? Although scientists have been surveying cells since the invention of the microscope centuries ago, there is still no consensus on what a “cell type” is. Large, rich datasets like this atlas contain massive amounts of information to characterize individual cells well beyond their appearance under a microscope, helping to explain factors that make cells similar or dissimilar. Those differences may not be apparent to the naked eye.

Just last year, Allen Institute researchers conducted similar work by categorizing nearly 24,000 cells from the brain’s visual and motor cortex into different types based upon their gene activity [2]. The latest research lines up well with the cell subclasses and types categorized in the previous gene-activity work. As a result, the scientists have more evidence that each of the 46 cell types is actually distinct from the others and likely drives a particular function within the visual cortex.

Publicly available resources, like this database of cell types, fuel much more discovery. Scientists all over the world can look at this table (and soon, more atlases from other parts of the brain) to see where a cell type fits into a region of interest and how it might behave in a range of brain conditions.


[1] Classification of electrophysiological and morphological neuron types in the mouse visual cortex. N Gouwens NW, et al. Neurosci. 2019 Jul;22(7):1182-1195.

[2] Shared and distinct transcriptomic cell types across neocortical areas. Tasic B, et al. Nature. 2018 Nov;563(7729):72-78.


Brain Basics: The Life and Death of a Neuron (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Cell Types: Overview of the Data (Allen Brain Atlas/Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle)

Hongkui Zeng (Allen Institute)

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development

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