If you've ever taken a biology class, you've probably seen a cell; all you need is an old microscope and a single blob of liquid.
But do those cells you see in a lab behave differently than the trillions of cells swimming naturally through your body? Can a cell get stressed — or even camera shy — when removed from its natural environment? [Tiny Grandeur: Stunning Photos of the Very Small]
"This [question] raises the nagging doubt that we are not seeing cells in their native state, happily ensconced in the organism in which they evolved," Eric Betzig, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus in Virginia, said in a statement.
That concern led Betzig and his colleagues on a quest to obtain the most candid, au naturel footage of living cells ever taken.
By combining two high-tech imaging processes, the team captured unbelievably clear, 3D footage of individual cells going about their microscopic business inside living tissues. The team primarily tested their new microscopy technique by tracking cells inside embryonic zebrafish, but also turned their lenses to nematodes, leaves and organoids derived from human stem cells — and you can see it all now.
In the feast of footage accompanying the researchers' resulting study (published yesterday, April 19, in the journal Science), a human cancer cell slides through blood vessels like a gelatinous John McClane moving through ceiling ducts. An orange immune cell gobbles up blue sugar molecules as it flickers and flames through the inner ear of an embryonic zebrafish. Cells divide, merge and migrate through the innermost canals of living organisms in stunningly crisp, multicolored detail.
For their new study, the researchers built a custom microscope that is like "three microscopes in one," according to a statement released with the paper. The rig relies on two complex microscopy methods. One technique, adaptive optics, involves intentionally deforming the microscope's mirror to compensate for distortions in the incoming picture. (This method is regularly used in telescopes for astronomy.)
The second method is called lattice light-sheet microscopy, which repeatedly swipes a thin sheet of light over the target cell to capture a flurry of 2D images that can be stacked into a high-resolution, 3D composite. Combining these methods results in a "Frankenstein's monster" of microscopy, Betzig said — but the images the approach produces are undeniably cool.
Unfortunately, you won't see a microscope like this in your school science lab anytime soon. According to Betzig, the technology is complicated, expensive and cumbersome (the microscope Betzig's team used fills a table 10 feet, or 3 meters, long). Maybe within 10 years, Betzig said, this type of imaging will be more accessible to biologists. Until then, grab a microscopic bag of popcorn and enjoy the show.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.