In the early 1660s, Robert Hooke put a sheet of cork under his microscope. It was then that he realized that it was made up of small polyhedral shaped structures very similar to the cells of a honeycomb. In ’65, he published Micrographía, an amazing collection of 50 images in which ‘cells’ were spoken for the first time .
Since then, scientists have obsessively studied living cells with better and better microscopes. The problem is that, for hundreds of years, to obtain sharp and powerful images, we have done exactly the same thing : we take cells and place them on a glass slide or a Petri dish.
But is that realistic? Do we really have to assume that cells function exactly the same in the solitude of the microscope as they do in the chemical effervescence of whole organisms? Wouldn’t it be better to look directly?
To fill in the gaps left by our approach to cell function, we used indirect methods; but Eric Betzig had an idea .
A window to the cellular world
The idea seems simple, combining two different optical technologies : on the one hand, they resorted to adaptive optics , a technique used by astronomers to counteract, in real time, the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in the capture of space images.
On the other, they pulled the reticular light sheet microscopy that allowed them to reconstruct a 3D image of a cell in high resolution from two-dimensional images.
Last year, and using this technique, Betzig’s team was able to observe fine details of the circuits of the spinal nerve, the movement of cancer cells or the trajectories of a group of immune cells crossing the inner ear of the zebrafish .
The images are simply amazing and that is why they have become viral these days . Of course, the technology is far from being accessible to laboratories around the world. It is not particularly manageable either.
To give just one piece of information, we are talking about a microscope more than three meters high. This is the next step, making this technology affordable and easy to use. In the meantime, we will have to “settle” for these wonderful proofs of concept .