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fluorescence microscopy

Saving Fat for Lean Times

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Credit: Rupali Ugrankar, Henne Lab, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas

Humans and all multi-celled organisms, or metazoans, have evolved through millennia into a variety of competing shapes, sizes, and survival strategies. But all metazoans still share lots of intriguing cell biology, including the ability to store excess calories as fat. In fact, many researchers now consider fat-storing cells to be “nutrient sinks,” or good places for the body to stash excess sugars and lipids. Not only can these provide energy needed to survive a future famine, this is a good way to sequester extra molecules that could prove toxic to cells and organs.

Here’s something to think about the next time you skip a meal. Fat-storing cells organize their fat reserves spatially, grouping them into specific pools of lipid types, in order to generate needed energy when food is scarce.

That’s the story behind this striking image taken in a larval fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster). The image captures fat-storing adipocytes in an organ called a fat body, where a larval fruit fly stores extra nutrients. It’s like the fat tissue in mammals. You can see both large and small lipid droplets (magenta) inside polygon-shaped fat cells, or adipocytes, lined by their plasma membranes (green). But notice that the small lipid droplets are more visibly lined by green, as only these are destined to be saved for later and exported when needed into the fly’s bloodstream.

Working in Mike Henne’s lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, research associate Rupali Ugrankar discovered how this clever fat-management system works in Drosophila [1]. After either feeding flies high-or-extremely low-calorie diets, Ugrankar used a combination of high-resolution fluorescence confocal microscopy and thin-section transmission electron microscopy to provide a three-dimensional view of adipocytes and their lipid droplets inside.

She observed two distinct sizes of lipid droplets and saw that only the small ones clustered at the cell surface membrane. The adipocytes contorted their membrane inward to grab these small droplets and package them into readily exportable energy bundles.

Ugrankar saw that during times of plenty, a protein machine could fill these small membrane-wrapped fat droplets with lots of triacylglycerol, a high-energy, durable form of fat storage. Their ready access at the surface of the adipocyte allows the fly to balance lipid storage locally with energy release into its blood in times of famine.

Ugrankar’s adeptness at the microscope resulted in this beautiful photo, which was earlier featured in the American Society for Cell Biology’s Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest. But her work and that of many others help to open a vital window into nutrition science and many critical mechanistic questions about the causes of obesity, insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, and even reduced lifespan.

Such basic research will provide the basis for better therapies to correct these nutrition-related health problems. But the value of basic science must not be forgotten—some of the most important leads could come from a tiny insect in its larval state that shares many aspects of mammalian metabolism.


[1] Drosophila Snazarus regulates a lipid droplet population at plasma membrane-droplet contacts in adipocytes. Ugrankar R, Bowerman J, Hariri H, Chandra M, et al. Dev Cell. 2019 Sep 9;50(5):557-572.e5.


The Interactive Fly (Society for Developmental Biology, Rockville, MD)

Henne Lab (University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Taking Brain Imaging Even Deeper

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Thanks to yet another amazing advance made possible by the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, I can now take you on a 3D fly-through of all six layers of the part of the mammalian brain that processes external signals into vision. This unprecedented view is made possible by three-photon microscopy, a low-energy imaging approach that is allowing researchers to peer deeply within the brains of living creatures without damaging or killing their brain cells.

The basic idea of multi-photon microscopy is this: for fluorescence microscopy to work, you want to deliver a specific energy level of photons (usually with a laser) to excite a fluorescent molecule, so that it will emit light at a slightly lower energy (longer wavelength) and be visualized as a burst of colored light in the microscope. That’s how fluorescence works. Green fluorescent protein (GFP) is one of many proteins that can be engineered into cells or mice to make that possible.

But for that version of the approach to work on tissue, the excited photons need to penetrate deeply, and that’s not possible for such high energy photons. So two-photon strategies were developed, where it takes the sum of the energy of two simultaneous photons to hit the target in order to activate the fluorophore.

That approach has made a big difference, but for deep tissue penetration the photons are still too high in energy. Enter the three-photon version! Now the even lower energy of the photons makes tissue more optically transparent, though for activation of the fluorescent protein, three photons have to hit it simultaneously. But that’s part of the beauty of the system—the visual “noise” also goes down.

This particular video shows what takes place in the visual cortex of mice when objects pass before their eyes. As the objects appear, specific neurons (green) are activated to process the incoming information. Nearby, and slightly obscuring the view, are the blood vessels (pink, violet) that nourish the brain. At 33 seconds into the video, you can see the neurons’ myelin sheaths (pink) branching into the white matter of the brain’s subplate, which plays a key role in organizing the visual cortex during development.

This video comes from a recent paper in Nature Communications by a team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge [1]. To obtain this pioneering view of the brain, Mriganka Sur, Murat Yildirim, and their colleagues built an innovative microscope that emits three low-energy photons. After carefully optimizing the system, they were able to peer more than 1,000 microns (0.05 inches) deep into the visual cortex of a live, alert mouse, far surpassing the imaging capacity of standard one-photon microscopy (100 microns) and two-photon microscopy (400-500 microns).

This improved imaging depth allowed the team to plumb all six layers of the visual cortex (two-photon microscopy tops out at about three layers), as well as to record in real time the brain’s visual processing activities. Helping the researchers to achieve this feat was the availability of a genetically engineered mouse model in which the cells of the visual cortex are color labelled to distinguish blood vessels from neurons, and to show when neurons are active.

During their in-depth imaging experiments, the MIT researchers found that each of the visual cortex’s six layers exhibited different responses to incoming visual information. One of the team’s most fascinating discoveries is that neurons residing on the subplate are actually quite active in adult animals. It had been assumed that these subplate neurons were active only during development. Their role in mature animals is now an open question for further study.

Sur often likens the work in his neuroscience lab to astronomers and their perpetual quest to see further into the cosmos—but his goal is to see ever deeper into the brain. His group, along with many other researchers supported by the BRAIN Initiative, are indeed proving themselves to be biological explorers of the first order.


[1] Functional imaging of visual cortical layers and subplate in awake mice with optimized three-photon microscopy. Yildirim M, Sugihara H, So PTC, Sur M. Nat Commun. 2019 Jan 11;10(1):177.


Sur Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

NIH Support: National Eye Institute; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering

Snapshots of Life: Building Muscle in a Dish

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Fibers from cultured muscle stem cells

Credit: Kevin Murach, Charlotte Peterson, and John McCarthy, University of Kentucky, Lexington

As many of us know from hard experience, tearing a muscle while exercising can be a real pain. The good news is that injured muscle will usually heal quickly for many of us with the help of satellite cells. Never heard of them? They are the adult stem cells in our skeletal muscles long recognized for their capacity to make new muscle fibers called myotubes.

This striking image shows what happens when satellite cells from mice are cultured in a lab dish. With small adjustments to the lab dish’s growth media, those cells fuse to form myotubes. Here, you see the striated myotubes (red) with multiple cell nuclei (blue) characteristic of mature muscle fibers. The researchers also used a virus to genetically engineer some of the muscle to express a fluorescent protein (green).

Cool Videos: A Biological Fireworks Display

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Let’s kick off the Fourth of July weekend with some biological fireworks! While we’ve added a few pyrotechnic sound effects just for fun, what you see in this video is the product of some serious research. Using a specialized microscope equipped with a time-lapse camera to image fluorescence-tagged proteins in real-time, an NIH-funded team has captured a critical step in the process of cell division, or mitosis: how filaments called microtubules (red) form new branches (green) and fan out to form mitotic spindles.

In this particular experimental system, the team led by Sabine Petry at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, studies the dynamics of microtubules in a cell-free extract of cytoplasm taken from the egg of an African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). Petry’s ultimate goal is to learn how to build mitotic spindles, molecule by molecule, in the lab. Such an achievement would mark a major step forward in understanding the complicated mechanics of cell division, which, when disrupted, can cause cancer and many other health problems.

Snapshots of Life: Cell Skeleton on the Move

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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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