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Subspecialties Biochemistry and molecular biology, Digital and computational pathology, Bioinformatics, Microscopy and imaging, Technology and innovation

Journey to the Center of the Cell

Would you like to see the intricate, complex structures inside a living human cell? Until recently, this would have been unheard-of. Now, the Allen Institute for Cell Science has developed a comprehensive three-dimensional model of a live human cell that allows researchers to dig into our bodies’ innermost secrets. The probabilistic model can accurately predict the shapes and locations of structures within a cell, a novel ability that the researchers hope will enhance our knowledge of cellular processes and facilitate a better understanding of human disease. To find out more about the mechanics and potential significance of the model, we went straight to the source.

What inspired you to develop this model?

Fluorescence imaging is incredibly powerful in that it allows us to see specific structures, but limited in that it only allows us to see a few components of living cells at any given time. We needed to develop methods that allowed us to integrate both of these abilities. Neural networks were a natural starting point because they permit us to scale the integration of dozens of cellular components, each learned from thousands of images, relatively easily.

How accurately can the model visualize structures within a cell?

The accuracy of our prediction of structure location largely depends on the strength of the relationship between this structure and the cell and nucleus. For example, the location of the nuclear membrane is easy to predict when we see the nucleus, whereas cytoplasmic organelles, such as mitochondria or microtubules, may be highly variable in their localization and thus harder to predict. These relationships change as the cell grows and divides, and understanding the strengths of the relationships between different cellular structures under different conditions is crucial for understanding cell organization and behavior.

What are the possible applications in terms of disease research?

Although our models are powerful, the data on which they are built currently spans only a narrow range of cell physiology. As we collect data under different conditions and with more subcellular structures, we will be able to expand our understanding of the natural variations in cell biology and build more expressive and predictive models of how cells may respond to different stimuli.

A big challenge is to make our models as easy as possible for other scientists to use and interpret in their day-to-day work. We want to build more accurate models that allow us to see inside cells at higher resolution and subsequently use these models to identify and explore how important components reorganize as cells grow and mature.

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About the Author
Luke Turner

While completing my undergraduate degree in Biology, I soon discovered that my passion and strength was for writing about science rather than working in the lab. My master’s degree in Science Communication allowed me to develop my science writing skills and I was lucky enough to come to Texere Publishing straight from University. Here I am given the opportunity to write about cutting edge research and engage with leading scientists, while also being part of a fantastic team!

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