New Microscope Makes Gorgeous 3-D Movies Of Living Cells

Biology is beautiful.

There’s a new microscope in town and the images it produces are stunning. An international team of engineers and biologists is announcing it’s made a microscope that’s able to see phenomena such as single proteins diffusing through thickly-packed cells, and the movement of the fibers that pull cells apart when they divide. Everything remains alive and active under the microscope.

“The results provide a visceral reminder of the beauty and the complexity of living systems,” the team wrote in a paper, published online today, that describes the microscope. In other words, biology is beautiful.

The cool thing about the new ‘scope is that it’s able to record both small features and swift movements. Normally those two qualities are trade-offs. If you want to make an instrument that sees in high resolution, it’ll be slower, because it needs to take more measurements. In addition, powerful microscopes often pump tons of light radiation into the samples it images, killing living cells.

“The results provide a visceral reminder of the beauty and the complexity of living systems.”

The new microscope, called a lattice light-sheet microscope, solves two problems at once by using one light beam that’s divided into seven parts. Each seventh of a light beam covers its own portion of the sample, so users don’t have to wait for a single light beam to sweep over the whole sample. The divided beam also ensures samples get a lesser dose of radiation than they normally would, although engineers didn’t think of that when they first tested the divided-light idea.

“What was shocking to us was that by spreading the energy out across seven beams instead of one, the phototoxicity went way down,” the microscope’s lead engineer, Eric Betzig, said in a statement. (Betzig won a Nobel Prize this year for other advances in microscopy.) “What I learned from that experience is that while the total dose of light you put on the cell is important, what’s far more important is the instantaneous power that you put on the cell,” he said.

The light a lattice light-sheet microscope uses is also unusual. It uses a Bessel beam, which is a special kind of laser light that doesn’t diffract, or splinter. (Learn more about that here.) The Bessel beam is arranged so that it makes a lattice of light—yep, like the top of a cherry pie—that’s exceptionally thin. The thinness gives it its high spatial resolution.

Betzig and his colleagues made a Bessel-beam microscope in 2011, but recently improved the instrument by adding algorithms that fix blurry spots that used to appear in the microscope’s images.

Okay, enough explanation. On to the images!

Here’s a white blood cell squidging through a matrix of collagen fibers. (Pretty sure “squidging” is the scientific term for this.)

Here’s a series of images that show an immune-system cell, called a T cell, approaching a target cell for destruction. (T cell in orange, target in blue. The scale bar represents 4 micrometers.) Go, T cell, go!

T Cell Approaches Target Over 200 Seconds
T Cell Approaches Target Over 200 Seconds Betzig Lab, HHMI

Here’s a closer look at that T cell from different angles. Look at that gaping maw. The scale bar here represents 5 micrometers.

T Cell
T Cell Betzig Lab, HHMI

A fruit fly embryo, imaged while it’s developing. Weird.

Lastly, a cell in the middle of dividing. The orange stuff is the cell’s DNA, which it is now dividing into two portions. The short strands all around the DNA are fibers called microtubules, which help pull everything apart. The microtubules are color-coded by how fast they’re moving. The red microtubules are the fastest, moving at a speedy 1.5 micrometers per second.

Cell in Anaphase
Cell in Anaphase Betzig Lab, HHMI

Scientists who want to use the new microscope can apply here. The microscope is housed at Janelia Farm, a private research campus in Virginia, and it’s free to use. There are also new lattice light-sheet microscopes at Harvard University and the University of California, San Francisco.