A stroll through any cell biology research lab will likely reveal crammed benches full of optical microscopy systems. While instruments such as plate readers, flow cytometers, and cell counters are still commonly used, there has been a strong trend (most evident in the past 5 years) towards better imaging as the method of choice. It only takes a few quick web searches to find the expansion of microscopy technologies as well as the adoption of imaging to the previously "non-imaging" analysis instruments.This fervent competition among the instrument vendors has led to a strong pace of innovation and excellent product options for the research scientist. In this post, I'd like to take a step back and ponder whether this "imaging arms race" is leading down the right path for the cellular analysis community.
The underlying demand for improved imaging technology is the desire to visualize living cells at full resolution and in real time. Human intuition teaches us that "seeing is believing," and this applies to the study of a single cell the same as it would to an exotic giant squid. While this assumption takes a bit of a leap of faith, it is likely to be correct for cellular research. The core reason is that like the study of animal behavior, cellular biology is dynamic and non-deterministic. (In contrast, a phenomenon such as gravitational force does not require seeing to believe.) There is also sufficient scientific evidence that intracellular processes are largely "see-able"-- such as ionic flux, protein binding/localization, genetic switches, morphology/movement, etc. It is also worth highlighting the emotional power of visualization, which undoubtedly drives many purchasing decisions (for research equipment as well as in our living rooms). Our brains are wired to respond to full color, three-dimensional, 60 fps, "retina display" visuals by triggering associations with reality and truth. It is not surprising that it is rare to find a "cell paper" that does not have figures with microscope visuals. The prevalence of imaging in cell biology is deeply entrenched, and is unlikely to diminish.
The dynamic cell analysis community also receives key benefits from the much larger economy around displays, cameras, light sources, software, and digital storage driven by the same human desire for visualization. In fact, it is hard to imagine modern microscopy existing without the substantial investments made in the consumer electronics markets-- digital cameras, LED light sources, terabyte hard drives. Even more importantly, this scale is driving down costs of components such that in the near future, a cellular imaging instrument could become near-ubiquitous. (Not too long ago, cellphone CMOS cameras were thought to be too low quality for everyday use.) Another aspect of this ecosystem that has yet to spill over to biology is the tremendous progress being made in image analysis/recognition and 3D graphics software. The combined economies in security/surveillance, movies, and gaming will surely blow this space up in both capability and cost. This confluence of technology ecosystems is a great sign for the future of scientific imaging instruments.
As with any emerging technology, a key challenge is to convince the broader public to support and adopt an often foreign concept. For most people, the application of cellular analysis technology is far from mainstream, and evokes images of scientists in biohazard suits. While this acclimation and communication takes its own course (to be covered in a future post), the cellular analysis field has a strong advantage in being able to appeal to the sense of dynamic visualization (a fancy term for story). There is an inherent cinematic quality in watching a cell rebellion to turn cancerous, or the decision of a pluripotent cell to commit to a certain fate, or a cell succumbing to a pathogen invasion. For these reasons, the continued drive towards better imaging instruments, and the community's commitment to acquire better and more powerful visuals is definitely a good thing.