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Computational Molecular Phenotyping

Snapshots of Life: Behold the Beauty of the Eye

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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.

Snapshots of Life: Fisheye View

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Goldfish retina

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

It looks like a celebration with confetti and streamers that the photographers—among the winners of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2013 BioArt Competition—captured in this image. But these dots and lines are actually cells in the retina of a goldfish. And what such images reveal may be far more than just a pretty picture.

NIH-funded researchers at the University of Utah used a set of tools called Computational Molecular Phenotyping (CMP) to take a snapshot of the amacrine cells in the retina. The retina is delicate, light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye, and its amacrine cells are involved in processing and conveying signals from the light-gathering photoreceptor cells to the brain’s visual cortex, where the image is decoded. The colors in this photograph reveal the unique metabolic chemistry, and thus the identity, of each subtype of neuron. The red, yellow, and orange cells are amacrine neurons with a high level of the amino acid glycine; the blue ones have a lot of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The green color tells us something different: it provides a physiological snapshot revealing which neurons were active and talking to each other at the time the image was created.