Cell biology and its huge micro advances

Increasingly sophisticated microscope techniques allow us to fully see and analyse the workings of biological cells.

12 July 2022

Cell biology and its huge micro advances

By Mariusz Bogacki, Researcher and Science Communicator, Edinburgh

Remember ‘Once Upon a Time… Life’ (also known as ‘Micro Patrol)’? The 1980s educational cartoon that depicted the life inside of a human body? It was a great mini-series that mixed entertaining storytelling with factual information that showed the inner workings of human body organs and blood cells. Today’s advancements in micro-biology offer just as exciting a peek into human cells, but in high definition and with breath-taking detail.

The secret lives of cells
The problem with human cells is that they are tiny, incredibly complex, and hard to analyse under controlled conditions. Until recently, scientists relied on X-ray crystallography in order to visualise cells and other microscopic biological entities such as proteins and viruses. The method relied on crystallising molecules and then subjecting them to high volume of X-ray beams. It is thanks to crystallography that we discovered the helical nature of DNA and other micro elements in our bodies. But the technique comes with limitations as the procedure is extremely complicated, tedious and sometimes impossible to apply to certain body parts.

Cryo-electron microscopy
In recent years, the developments in cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, has allowed scientists to go beyond the limitations of X-ray based methods. Cryo-EM is not new; biologists have been experimenting with it ever since the 1930s. The technique relies on flash-freezing cells and exposing them to electron beams in order to visualise the molecular structures inside living cells. However, until recently the method produced grainy, low quality images making the important details inaccessible. This is where the recent ‘resolution revolution’ comes to the rescue. Advancements in cameras and image processing software now allow researchers to capture highly detailed images of living cells. For example, we can now view and analyse the details of empty spaces within living cells revealing a new world of organisms and physical laws inside of them.

To answer big questions, think small
Knowing more about biological cells, the building blocks of any living organism, is of great value for humanity. Just think back to how the discovery and deeper understanding of the atom propelled forward nuclear science! Cell biologists now believe that thanks to more detailed images of a cell, and hence a better understanding of them, they will be able to control and even design new biological cells. This means we would be able to assemble cells that can help fight cancer, reverse ageing, and even generate clean energy. The progress of cell biology depends on a better understating the inner-workings of an individual cell – and with it the quest of Micro Patrol continues!