Skip to main content

San Diego Scientists Add Color To Black-And-White Electron Microscopes

San Diego Scientists Add Color To Black-And-White Electron Microscopes

Like Dorothy stepping into Oz, UC San Diego researchers have brought color to the highly detailed images produced by electron microscopes.

Like Dorothy stepping into Oz, UC San Diego researchers have brought color to the highly detailed images produced by electron microscopes.

The researchers say their new technique — described in a study published Thursday in the journal Cell Chemical Biology — could help scientists view cellular processes with new levels of detail, providing them with insights about processes such as memory formation or cancer response.

"We've added the ability to discriminate between multiple parts in the same space at high resolution," said UC San Diego neuroscience professor Mark Ellisman, one of the study's senior authors.

Electron microscopes give scientists a powerful way to look at cells on a molecular level. By using a beam of fast-moving electrons instead of light, these microscopes can magnify objects by up to ten million times.

But these microscopes produce black and white images, and that can make it difficult for researchers to focus on whatever specific parts of a cell they're most interested in.

Photo credit: Adams et al./Cell Chemical Biology 2016

Two different brain cells called astrocytes are seen sharing a single synapse, Nov. 3, 2016.

Ellisman and his colleagues have overcome that limitation by tagging brightly fluorescent colors to whatever part of a cell they want to track. In simplified terms, they do this by using rare earth metals to paint certain parts of a cell so they pop out of the black and white background.

The researchers have already used the new technique to highlight interactions between brain cells with new levels of detail. Ellisman compares the process to a game of Where's Waldo.

"Imagine a 'Where's Waldo' scene where everything is gray," he said. "You can make Waldo stand out so that all of a sudden everything else in the scene disappears and Waldo is exposed. Then what we do is we color Waldo ... Then we bring back the grayscale. And then the colored Waldo stands out."

This 15-year project was also overseen by UC San Diego's Roger Tsien, a Nobel prize winner who unexpectedly died earlier this year. Ellisman said Tsien was involved in a lot of important research yet to be published.

"We plan on continuing this work, and continuing Roger's legacy on this and other projects," Ellisman said.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.