by Andre on 13 July 2006
A large part of learning science for me has been a story blobs being resolved into smaller blobs—understanding by reduction. Knock reductionism if you will, but some of those deeper steps can be immensely interesting and rewarding. I’m reminded of this every time I get to see inside a cell. I don’t remember exactly when I first learned about cells or saw them under a microscope but seeing little bags of water left me unsatisfied. How could they possibly compose the variety tissues we experience everyday from muscles to wood? How does a water bag possibly do anything?
My experience was entirely different the first time I was introduced to some of the cell’s parts. The world that opened up before me was almost unbelievably rich. It was still a world of mysterious blobs, but the sheer diversity and intricacy made up for all that. Couple that with an awareness that we were finally approaching the molecular scale where chemistry rules gave the cell’s interior an elemental air. It also started becoming clear that what seemed to be bags of water were in fact tiny wet machines whose various forms were capable of an almost endless array of tasks.
I got to revisit that experience yesterday when doing some microscopy on cells that had fluorescently labeled microtubules for the first time. The cells were sparsely plated on a piece of glass so that we had to search a while for them but it wasn’t a chore: sitting in a dark room and waiting for some interesting shapes to silently drift into the field of view is meditative. More like deep sea diving than microscopy. You can see one of the specimens in blue.
To light up the cytoskeleton, Vidya Nadar in Peter Baas’s lab used fluorescent antibodies that attach specifically to beta tubulin. The nice thing about specific attachment is that you can just incubate the cells in some medium containing the dye and one hour later you’ve got a mostly non-fluorescent cell with glow in the dark microtubules. Then you’re only TIRF away from the sublime.