High-Definition Microscopy Movies – Now in 3-D

In a paper appearing right now in Nature Methods, researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm campus describe a new type of microscopy that’s just chock full of awesomeness. By shooting a special pulsating light source into the side of a sample and imaging the photons coming off at a right angle to the light, they can construct highly detailed 3-dimensional views of individual cells. That’s cool on its own, but what takes it over the top is that they can also zoom the view very rapidly through individual cells. The result is true three-dimensional movies of living cells.

Here, for example, is their movie of African green monkey cells carrying out endocytosis:

Vesicles forming. Movie courtesy Eric Betzig/Janelia Farm*

The waves crashing across the surface of the cell in the top panel are called membrane ruffles, and they’re forming the vacuoles (big globular structures) you can see in the bottom panels. Having learned the textbook version of this process, which is inevitably accompanied by a drawing showing a dimple forming in the cell surface, I find this fascinating to watch. Instead of dimples, we have something that looks more like a cat’s tongue drinking water, which in retrospect makes a lot of sense. The cell isn’t passively letting its food push into it, it’s actively eating.

The other thing that occurs to me as I watch the movie is: HOLY CRAP WE CAN ACTUALLY SEE THIS! Other microscopy techniques offer high resolution, or the ability to see subcellular structures in three dimensions, or time-lapse moviemaking capabilities in live cells, but not all three simultaneously. I think this technique is going to become extremely popular in cell biology labs.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go spend another hour looping this movie – and the others in the paper’s supplementary data – and staring at them with my jaw on the floor.

* If anyone knows a straightforward way to embed a Quicktime movie in a WordPress post, please explain in the comments. Otherwise, just click the link and watch it in the subsequent window. Sorry for the inconvenience. David kindly sent instructions for embedding the video in the post. Thanks!