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Brain Cell Analysis

Caption: While analyzing brain cells, a computer program “thinks” about which cellular structure to identify.
Credit: Steven Finkbeiner, University of California, San Francisco and the Gladstone Institutes

For centuries, scientists have trained themselves to look through microscopes and carefully study their structural and molecular features. But those long hours bent over a microscope poring over microscopic images could be less necessary in the years ahead. The job of analyzing cellular features could one day belong to specially trained computers.

In a new study published in the journal Cell, researchers trained computers by feeding them paired sets of fluorescently labeled and unlabeled images of brain tissue millions of times in a row [1]. This allowed the computers to discern patterns in the images, form rules, and apply them to viewing future images. Using this so-called deep learning approach, the researchers demonstrated that the computers not only learned to recognize individual cells, they also developed an almost superhuman ability to identify the cell type and whether a cell was alive or dead. Even more remarkable, the trained computers made all those calls without any need for harsh chemical labels, including fluorescent dyes or stains, which researchers normally require to study cells. In other words, the computers learned to “see” the invisible!

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Bacteria are single-cell organisms that reproduce by dividing in half. Proteins within these cells organize themselves in a number of fascinating ways during this process, including a recently discovered mechanism that makes the mesmerizing pattern of waves, or oscillations, you see in this video. Produced when the protein MinE chases the protein MinD from one end of the cell to the other, such oscillations are thought to center the cell’s division machinery so that its two new “daughter cells” will be the same size.

To study these dynamic patterns in greater detail, Anthony Vecchiarelli purified MinD and MinE proteins from the bacterium Escherichia coli. Vecchiarelli, who at the time was a postdoc in Kiyoshi Mizuuchi’s intramural lab at NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), labeled the proteins with fluorescent markers and placed them on a synthetic membrane, where their movements were then visualized by total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy. The proteins self-organized and generated dynamic spirals of waves: MinD (blue, left); MinE (red, right); and both MinD and MinE (purple, center) [1].

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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.

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Skin cells from a genetically engineered zebrafish

Credit: Chen-Hui Chen, Duke University

If this image makes you think of a modern art, you’re not alone. But what you’re actually seeing are hundreds of live cells from a tiny bit (0.0003348 square inches) of skin on the tail fin of a genetically engineered adult zebrafish. Zebrafish are normally found in tropical freshwater and are a favorite research model to study vertebrate development and tissue regeneration. The cells have been labeled with a cool, new fluorescent imaging tool called Skinbow. It uniquely color codes cells by getting them to express genes encoding red, green, and blue fluorescent proteins at levels that are randomly determined. The different ratios of these colorful proteins mix to give each cell a distinctive hue when imaged under a microscope. Here, you can see more than 70 detectable Skinbow colors that make individual cells as visually distinct from one another as jellybeans in a jar.

Skinbow is the creation of NIH-supported scientists Chen-Hui Chen and Kenneth Poss at Duke University, Durham, NC, with imaging computational help from collaborators Stefano Di Talia and Alberto Puliafito. As reported recently in the journal Developmental Cell [1], Skinbow’s distinctive spectrum of color occurs primarily in the outermost part of the skin in a layer of non-dividing epithelial cells. Using Skinbow, Poss and colleagues tracked these epithelial cells, individually and as a group, over their entire 2 to 3 week lifespans in the zebrafish. This gave them an unprecedented opportunity to track the cellular dynamics of wound healing or the regeneration of lost tissue over time. While Skinbow only works in zebrafish for now, in theory, it could be adapted to mice and maybe even humans to study skin and possibly other organs.

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Keratinocyte

Credit: Torsten Wittmann, University of California, San Francisco

Cells are constantly on the move. They shift, grow, and migrate to new locations—for example, to heal a wound or to intercept an infectious agent as part of an immune response. But how do cells actually move?

In this image, Torsten Wittmann, an NIH-funded cell biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, reveals the usually-invisible cytoskeleton of a normal human skin cell that lends the cell its mobility. The cytoskeleton is made from protein structures called microtubules—the wispy threads surrounding the purple DNA-containing nucleus—and filaments of a protein called actin, seen here as the fine blue meshwork in the cell periphery. Both actin and microtubules are critical for growth and movement.

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