Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Microscopy, Astronomy and Vincent Van Gogh

Anyone in biomedical research knows not all experiments work exactly like they are planned. This was the case a few weeks ago when I seeded some NIH3T3 cells that express GFP into the wells of a microplate. Maybe it was the recent images of Pluto transmitted from NASA's New Horizon's space probe or maybe it was the Van Gogh print of "The Starry Night" that used to hang in my daughter’s bedroom, but when I saw the completed montage image of NIH3T3-GFP cells that have been fixed and stained with DAPI my first thought was that it looked like stars and constellations.

DAPI stained NIH3T3 Cells Expressing GFP
Figure 1. DAPI stained NIH3T3 Cells Expressing GFP. Cells were fixed with 4% formaldehyde and then stained with DAPI nuclear stain. A total of 225 images in a 15 x 15 montage array using a 20X objective was rendered and stitched into a single image.  Scale bar represents 1000 ┬Ám.

Scientists examine things in particular ways using a combination of very sophisticated equipment, everyday instruments, and many unlikely tools. Some phenomena that scientists want to observe are so tiny that they need a microscope. Other things are so far away that a powerful telescope must be used in order to see them. What is fascinating to me is that despite the vast differences in size, things appear very similar. 

Ultraviolet Coverage of the Hubble Space Telescope Ultra Deep Field.
Figure 2.  Ultraviolet Coverage of the Hubble Space Telescope Ultra Deep Field. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 image is a composite of separate exposures taken in 2003 to 2012 with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3.

Despite the differences in true object size, astronomy and microscopy are very similar. Both of these fields of research use visual information as a means to maximize scientific expertise; yet the targets are often inaccessible to the human eye. Astronomy relies on telescopes to provide information about extraterrestrial objects, while microscopy utilizes microscopes to visualize cellular objects at much closer range. Even though the objects of astronomy are tremendously large, their distance from us renders them microscopic to the naked eye. At the most basic levels, both systems use much the same magnifier; essentially a tube with focusing lenses, but with markedly different focal lengths.

BioTek has a number of imager products that have produced some remarkable microscopic digital fluorescent and brightfield images. Coincidentally one of my colleagues in BioTek China created a 2015 calendar that shows the similarity between images generated by the BioTek Cytation readers and those taken by the Hubble Telescope.

The GFP expressing NIH3T3 cells that I plated were not evenly distributed and rather clumped making them unusable for the experiment that I had planned, but they certainly had the appearance of stars in the night sky. I have a pretty good idea as to why my cells are arranged the way they are, but astronomers have puzzled the same question about stars for centuries.

By: BioTek Instruments, Paul Held, PhD., Laboratory Manager

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