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 . 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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The brand new $3 million Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences  delivered a very nice reward and well deserved recognition to eleven exceptionally creative scientists who have devoted their careers to biology and medicine. And, with five awards to be given each year, I hope this inspires other life scientists to embark on innovative and high-risk endeavors.
For this inaugural round, I’m proud to say that nine of the eleven winners were NIH grant recipients—some for more than three decades. Now, you may not have heard of most of these scientists. Quite frankly, that’s a shame. These folks have discovered fundamental principles of biology—everything from cancer causing genes to techniques for creating stem cells. These discoveries have boosted our understanding of health and disease, and led to the development of many drugs and therapies.
So these individuals really should be household names—and more of that kind of recognition would be a good thing to inspire youth to explore careers in science. In the United States, virtually everyone can list names of multiple movie stars and athletes, but two-thirds of Americans can’t name a single living scientist .
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