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Senior Scientist Rudolf Oldenbourg and other MBL-affiliated biologists and physicists revealed their collaborative process to create informative, beautiful images of cell structure and behavior at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting last weekend in Boston, Mass.

The symposium “Innovations in Imaging: Seeing is Believing” was organized by Amy Gladfelter of Dartmouth College, an MBL Whitman Investigator.

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Fluorescence image of a living cell (MDCK) expressing septin molecules linked to green fluorescent protein (GFP). The image was recorded with the Fluorescence LC-PolScope and shows fluorescent septin fibers in color, indicating that the fluorescence is polarized and the septin molecules are aligned in the fibers. Credit: Rudolf Oldenbourg/MBL

“We are beginning to understand the basis for cell organization at unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution through the creative application of fundamental physics to microscopy,” Gladfelter stated. “This symposium will help motivate the next phase of interdisciplinary approaches to advance the visualization of life, from the scale of a single molecule to the whole organism.”

The data collected in biological images, Gladfelter noted, not only illuminates basic cellular processes, but is useful for medical purposes: to diagnose a metastasizing cancer or microbial infection, for example, or to screen chemical libraries for new pharmaceuticals.

“These images bring us to a beautiful world beyond the grasp of our normal senses,” Gladfelter stated. “In this way microscopes give us beauty and [biological or medical] application, often in the same image.”

The capacity of microscopes to reach beyond the senses is well appreciated by Oldenbourg, who spoke on New Frontiers in Polarized Light Microscopy for Live Cell Imaging.
(Oldenbourg’s MBL co-authors are Michael Shribak, Tomomi Tani, and Shinya Inoué.)

“Polarization is a basic property of light that is often overlooked, because the human eye is not sensitive to polarization. Therefore, we don’t have an intuitive understanding of it and optical phenomena that are based on polarization either elude us or we find them difficult to comprehend,” Oldenbourg stated.

“Like most scientific instruments, the polarized light microscope translates polarization effects so they can be perceived by our senses, in this case by our eyes, and makes them amenable to quantitative and analytical analysis. At the MBL, we are developing polarized light imaging techniques, including fluorescence polarization … for generating time-lapse images that clearly reveal the otherwise invisible dynamics of single molecules and molecular assemblies in organelles, cells, and tissues.”


The events of cell division during meiosis I in a living insect spermatocyte, beginning at diakinesis through telophase to the near completion of cytokinesis. Testes from the Crane fly Nephrotoma suturalis were observed with time-lapse liquid crystal polarized light microscopy (LC-PolScope, MBL, Woods Hole MA, and PerkinElmer, Hopkinton MA). Movie images display the naturally occurring birefringence of cell organelles and structures that are made up of aligned molecules, such as the meiotic spindle and mitochondria. Horizontal image width is 56 µm. Credits: James LaFountain and Rudolf Oldenbourg/MBL

Other talks in the symposium included:

Navigating the Dynamic Cell
Jennifer Lippincott-Swartz (National Institutes of Heath/MBL Physiology Course)

Imaging Three-Dimensional Dynamics in Cells and Embryos
Eric Betzig (Howard Hughes Medical Institute/MBL Physiology Course and MBL Neurobiology Course)

Structured Illumination and the Analysis of Single Molecules in Cells
Rainer Heintzmann (King’s College, London)

Imaging Single Cells in the Breast Tumor Microenvironment
John Condeelis (Albert Einstein College of Medicine)

Single Molecule Imaging in Live Cells
Amy S. Gladfelter (Dartmouth College/MBL Whitman Investigator)

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