Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I didn't know it looked like that

This week the Institute for Molecular Bioscience holds its annual Winter School in Mathematical and Computational Biology. One of the talks was on the Visible Cell project. The aim of this project is to create three dimensional computer graphics models of mammalian cells for use by molecular biologists.

The cell type they have been looking at is the beta cell in the Islets of Langherans in the pancreas. What they have been doing is slicing cells into a lot of fine sections and taking electon microscope pictures of the sections and doing so at various angles. They are then using smoothers to join these sections together in the computer to create models of the cell.

Very impressive! And a lot of the organelles do not look like they to in textbook pictures. These pictures are usually based on single cross sections and can give quite misleading impressions of the three dimensional structures.

The mitochondria are not the little elliptical bodies you thought they were. They are long branching snake-like things. The Golgi apparatus does not look like a stack of pancakes. It is this elegant sparse lacy skeletal structure. The endoplasmic reticulum is similar. The cell is much more crowded than most illustrations would make you think it was.

In most of these cases my reactions were "I should have realized it wouldn't look like the pictures." and "Wow! Neat!"