Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Nature, red in tooth and claw." and blue, and green, and yellow, and...

The picture above is a 'brainbow' created by a lab in Harvard - it is a fluorescent microscopy image of the hippocampus of a mouse genetically engineered to express three fluorescent proteins. Depending on how the genes of the individual neurones are randomly recombined, each cell will express a different combination of the three proteins, giving each a unique colour! I love the beauty of the resultant image, and it is a great example of the meeting of scientific and aesthetic research that is becoming more and more widespread. Another example is given below - natural fireworks revealed by labelling actin microtubules in dividing cells. These pictures and plenty of others are available in an online exhibition run by the journal Cell at the Cell Picture Show. The images are incredible and there are explanations of what's being shown for those without a biology background - well worth a visit!

Image rights belong to Cell and the original creators.


  1. This is great - such surprising, and surprisingly delicate images. I'm curious about how representative the categories the Cell journal has made really are - Cell Death, Motility, Plants, etc. Or another way of putting it, what percentage of this kind of biology is able to be illuminated by these pictures?

  2. Well imaging techniques have really advanced in recent years, there are so many new fluorophores available and more sophisticated ways of targeting them correctly. Anything of even any real size is now fairly easily to image, so I guess when you ask about 'this kind of biology' I would say nearly 100% if we're talking about cell biology. It gets more difficult when trying to resolve things on a single-molecule level but even that is getting more routine

    I'm sure that the coming few years will produce many equally beautiful and inspiring images!

  3. The bright white on black of the second image evokes the night sky to me. I could have imagined, before telescopes came along, that a star, zoomed in on, would look like this.

    You could even imagine exotic (and unrealistic) star formation scenarios where this is a picture of a bunch of stars forming in the centre of a galaxy. Or perhaps it is a cluster of colliding galaxies in a universe similar to ours but with subtly different physics?

  4. I really like this comment about the night sky. To me that image suggests drawing - pastel and graphite, almost abstract - because the detail is so delicate. So fireworks, the night sky, and gestural sketching: different but somehow all related.

  5. The comments I was making at this link about how I had realised (from your comments in an email) that good art actually needs boundaries seem relevant to me here.

    All these different evocations didn't arise because someone had infinite freedom to describe something and made the dramatic realisation that all the things you list have something in common. It came from a photograph of something else entirely, "actin microtubules in dividing cells". By restricting one's self to photographing cells doing crazy things one creates a gorgeous image that a completely free mind would never have come up with on its own. It's counter-intuitive to me, but it makes sense now.

  6. James, 100% is a crazy number. Let's be conservative and pull back to 70%-85%: with that figure, I'd still have to say that cell biologists are turning into film spectators, and, well, welcome to my world! It seems to me that it is not a neutral thing when a field turns to the visual this coherently: its participants will start to need the critical tools of a visual intelligence. I'm reminded of the incipient field of the Medical Humanities, which is based on the quite logical idea that doctors treat humans, not statistical lists, and so they need humanistic tools.

    Shaun, I'll reply to the other thread.


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