“Cell listeners” shine light on nanoscale function


The image is of a Hippocampal neuron imaged by Spatial Light Interference Microscopy (SLIM) developed at the Quantitative Light Imaging Laboratory Lab at the University of Illinois and rendered with the help of the Beckman Institute’s Visualization Laboratory.

U. ILLINOIS (US)—One way to understand biological structures and mechanisms, according to researcher Gabriel Popescu, is to “listen to them” through the use of new optical imaging methods that measure cellular motion at the nanoscale.

In the case of a recent research project and paper, Popescu’s approach has led to new insight into the dynamics and structure of red blood cells (RBCs). Researchers used microscopy to study the deformation of red blood cells, which is an important issue when it comes to understanding cellular oxygen transport.

The paper appeared as the cover story in the Jan. 25 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. The work by researchers from the University of Illinois and MIT shows how the remarkable deformability of red blood cells is maintained by energy consumption via ATP transport.

“The ability of red blood cells to squeeze through narrow capillaries in the microvasculature is governed by the continuous remodeling of the spectrin network,” Popescu says.

It was technology developed in Popescu’s Quantitative Light Imaging Laboratory at Illinois’s Beckman Institute that enabled the research. Technology such as light scattering techniques, interferometry (bringing two waves together), and microscopy are combined to study how light interacts with tissue.

The techniques give insight into cellular interactions and make-up, as well as provide ways to measure cellular structure and dynamics. Popescu describes his lab’s approach as a form of eavesdropping.

“One way,” he says, “to describe our cell imaging work is that we’re trying to listen to cells as opposed to just seeing them, which microscopy has been doing for centuries. Now we are actually accurately measuring their motion at the nanoscale. So that in many ways, with all of these vibrations, is very close to listening to something.”

Popescu’s grand vision for his research line, however, goes beyond just listening to those cells. “What we really want to do in the end is to be cell whisperers, to talk back to them, and understand their language.”

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