A new microscope is showing cells in 3-D inside living creatures

Scientists have found a way to observe cells in living multi-cellular organisms in 3-D.

Although photographing living cells is common, the sharpest views come from cells isolated on glass slides, rather than inside the body. Cells inside the body are more difficult to image and scramble the light needed to capture them.

“This raises the nagging doubt that we are not seeing cells in their native state, happily ensconced in the organism in which they evolved,” says Physicist Eric Betzig, a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, who led the work.

Betzig and his colleagues combined two imaging technologies to watch different types of cells go about their work in a living creature.

To unscramble the light from cells buried within organisms, the researchers used adaptive optics – the same technology used by astronomers to provide clear views of distant celestial objects through Earth’s atmosphere.

The team then used lattice light sheet microscopy to process the images without damaging the cells. The technology rapidly and repeatedly sweeps an ultra-thin sheet of light through the cell while acquiring a series of 2-D images, building a high-resolution 3-D movie of subcellular dynamics.

The scientists shared a video showing what the microscope is capable of capturing. In this case it shows an immune cell making its way through the inner ear of a zebra fish while scooping up blue sugar particles along the way.

Other cells it could capture include cancer cells and spinal nerve circuits, all in 3-D detail.

The microscope needed to film in this detail is currently around 10-foot long. “It’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster right now,” says Betzig.

However, the team is working to produce a version of the microscope which could fit on a small desk; this would put it within reach of smaller labs in terms of cost.

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