This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

20Apr/12

Technology reveals what the naked eye cannot admire

** Here's another crosspost from the BSR! **

One of the reasons that fields such as biology and chemistry can be difficult for non-scientists to understand is that the objects and processes they study are far too small to be seen with the naked eye.  Envisioning what something like endocytosis might look like is as much an exercise in creativity as reality. However, technology is beginning to bridge this gap, and the result is every bit as fascinating as we could have imagined.

At the University of Cambridge, the "Under the Microscope" project aims to detail the beauty and complexity of biology at its tiniest.  Take, for example, this image of a "Killer T-cell" attacking a cancerous cell in the body:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=jgJKaP0Sj5U

In this video, we see the Killer T-cell (in green) identify and attack a cancerous cell beneath it (in blue).  While watching it, two things immediately came to my mind.  One was the accuracy of the T-cell in carrying out its duty of destroying the cancerous cell.  The environment was filled with all kinds of tiny cellular neighbors, and yet our hero knew what to aim for and how to get there.

The second thing that intrigued me was just how "living" that Killer T-Cell looked.  It pulsated and gyrated, moving back and forth as though uncertain what direction to take next.  Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but it's amazing to see something so tiny look so alive.

Now for something a little closer to my own field of study:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDg2Keu3HT8&feature=relmfu

This is an image of a fly's brain, with a particular network of cells labeled in green. The construction of this image required a detailed understanding of what parts of the genome are responsible for creating he insulin cells imaged in the video.  Scientists altered the sequence of these parts of the genome so that the cells fluoresce in response to certain wavelengths of light.  The result is that we can turn the network of cells on like a lightbulb, revealing the intricate pathways the snake throughout the fly's body.

And for good measure, here's an example of what the non-biological world looks like up close:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YFxg8tqT9k&feature=relmfu

What you see above is the growth of a batch of silicon nanowires.  While biology has been operating in the microscopic regime for millenia now, electrical engineering is just beginning to scratch the surface of what we can do with ultra tiny circuits.  From an engineering perspective, scaling components down to the level of nanometers introduces a host of problems (quantum tunneling, anyone?) that will keep researcher's hands full for many decades.

The microscopic world is beautiful because of just how different it is from what we're used to seeing. And yet, these tiny machines have been functioning since the beginning of life itself. What a wonder, then, that after so many years, we finally get to meet them face to face.

Note: If you're interested in University of Cambridge video series, the whole playlist can be found here.