Open any biology textbook, and you’ll encounter an artistic rendering of a perfectly round cell, says biophysicist Winfried Wiegraebe. Yet the truth is more complex. Wiegraebe’s team at the Allen Institute for Cell Science in Seattle has been modeling the behavior of individual cells in three dimensions. Among their recent observations: Even with cells of the same type, no two are shaped alike, let alone truly round. “We were surprised,” says Wiegraebe.
More than 350 years after they were first discovered, cells remain in many ways a mystery. How do they differentiate into brain, muscle, or any of the other approximately 200 different human cell types? How do they change as they age? Even more fundamentally, how do these little bags of water and chemicals turn a set of DNA instructions into a dynamic living creature capable of autonomous and coordinated behaviors?
Since Galileo Galilei, biologists have used microscopes not dissimilar from those in many high schools.
Over the past decade, answers to questions like these are finally coming into focus, thanks to advances in microscopy that have allowed microbiologists to observe living cells interacting, and to peer inside cells at resolutions believed physically impossible for hundreds of years.
It’s not just that someone designed a better microscope — though that’s a big part of it. It’s that biologists have grown multi-disciplinary, recruiting the expertise of other fields to explore the living world at its smallest scale. These collaborations have opened up a whole new way of seeing life inside the cell. The University of California, Berkeley’s Eric Betzig, whose work in the field garnered him a 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, suggests that this new understanding foretells a looming shift in outlook as dramatic as that from Newton to Einstein. While this remains to be seen, there is no doubt that cells have already proved to be far more dynamic and complex than our idealized textbook renderings suggest. [Continue reading…]