Sequences of nucleotides, data plots, mass spectrometry readouts — biomedical researchers have countless ways of visualizing what the systems they study are doing. But there’s nothing quite like actually seeing it. From electron micrographs that reveal how the nanostructure of a chemotherapy drug changes shape, to images of embryonic cells migrating to their destined positions on trails of protein fibers or immune cells erupting with cactus-like protrusions to snare and kill malaria parasites, biology’s microworld has come into view as never before.

To honor advances in the visualization of biological processes, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Koch Institute has for the past nine years featured a public gallery of bioscience images in its Cambridge, Mass., lobby. The 10 in this year’s exhibit were chosen from more than 160 submissions (a record number) spanning subjects as different as epigenetic modification and the sexual anatomy of a popular laboratory flower. They offer a peek into the living world as few have ever seen it.

Behind the Screens: Dropping in on Combinatorial Biology
Complex biological challenges, such as those in agricultural ecology or cancer therapy, may require solutions with multiple components. The lab of Paul Blainey builds soft plastic chips, each the size of a credit card, to rapidly screen thousands of microbes or compounds for “hit” combinations that promote health or defeat disease. Seven droplets, each containing one component, are merged within a single hexagonal well. Researchers examine images to identify desirable interactions. In this particular experiment, green means go — a promising hit ready for further testing. Jared Kehe, Tony Kulesa, Paul Blainey/Broad Institute and Koch Institute at MIT
Circuit Training: Shining a Light on Neural Development
Proper brain function depends on the balance between the activity of excitatory and inhibitory neurons. In the synthetic brain circuit seen here, engineered light-activated neurons (blue and white) respond to stimulation patterns that mimic excitatory signals from the developing brain. The electrodes in the foreground record the transmission of signals between cells, revealing important information about the development of neural networks. The lab of Li-Huei Tsai studies how rhythms generated by synchronicity between excitation and inhibition are impaired in Alzheimer’s disease. Matheus Victor, Li-Huei Tsai/Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT
Living Drug Factories: The Secreted Life of Therapeutic Proteins
Cell therapy comes from within. Researchers in the labs of Robert Langer and Daniel Anderson are engineering “smart” cells (blue) and seeding them on an implantable chip (black). As the cells mature (green), they secrete proteins (red) that can fight disease in the surrounding tissue. The biocompatible device not only allows the cells to grow in their natural environment and deliver exactly the right amount of drug when needed, it also protects the system from destruction by immune cells. Suman Bose, Amanda Facklam, Amanda Whipple, Robert Langer, Daniel Anderson/Koch Institute at MIT
A World Within: Mapping the Body’s Social Network
As the key player translating DNA code into cellular action, RNA provides important insight into cells’ past, present, and future. Researchers in Alex Shalek’s lab have sequenced the RNA of 45,782 single cells from 14 different organs to create an atlas of healthy cell physiology for reference in studies of various diseases including HIV and cancer. The team uses machine learning to map the relationships (lines) between various subpopulations of cells (dots). Each color signifies a different tissue of origin; together, they present a broad spectrum of cell behavior. Carly Ziegler, Shaina Carroll, Leslie Kean, Alex Shalek/Institute for Medical Engineering & Science and Koch Institute at MIT
Motion in the Ocean: Using Sea Urchins to Understand Cell Migration
Cancer cells exhibit many similarities to embryonic cells, including the ability to travel to distant and precise locations. As cells move, tracks of fibrous proteins facilitate their migration. The Hynes Lab uses sea urchins to study these processes — and proteins — in three dimensions. Peering inside transparent embryos, researchers observe glassy, newly-formed matrices of fibers around dark skeletons. Determining how cells use this matrix to guide their path through the embryo may provide valuable clues for understanding the mechanisms that promote cell migration during both development and cancer metastasis. Genevieve Abbruzzese/Hynes Lab/MIT
In Good Shape: Using Machine Learning to Improve Cancer Therapy
This image juxtaposes a molecular dynamics simulation (left) and an electron microscopy image (right) of sorafenib. Sorafenib, like many other cancer drugs, can spontaneously form intricate nano-scale structures that change how the drug behaves. The Langer Lab uses smart algorithms to compare simulations to reality and analyze or predict the assembly of these nanostructures under various conditions. Their findings allow them to design better versions of the drugs to improve patient outcomes. Daniel Reker, Jee Won Yang, Natsuda Navamajiti, Ruonan Cao, Dong Soo Yun, Giovanni Traverso, Robert Langer/Koch Institute at MIT
Where the Wild Types Are: Exploring the Roots of Developmental Biology
At the heart of modern biology lies the model organism — a living system that can be easily maintained and manipulated in the laboratory to shed light on biological processes. Mary Gehring’s lab uses the model organism Arabidopsis lyrata to interrogate how different genes are expressed as they pass from parent to offspring. This electron micrograph shows the plant’s flower, highlighting the male (yellow) and female (green) reproductive organs in their unmodified, or wild type, state. Nicki Watson, Mary Gehring/Whitehead Institute
Natural Born Killers: Activating the Immune System to Fight Disease
Natural killer (NK) cells are frontline defenders against infection. The labs of Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia and Galit Alter seek to visualize the process of activation and attack.
The NK cell seen here has been deposited on a glass slide alongside parasites and therapeutic antibodies. Preparing for battle, its surface transforms from smooth to bumpy, and protrusions start to emerge. Malaria is the enemy this time, but similar approaches are also being tested against cancer.
Allison Demas, David Mankus, Margaret Bisher, Abigail Lytton-Jean, Galit Alter, Sangeeta Bhatia/ Koch Institute at MIT and Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard
Epigenetics Express: Tracking DNA Methylation in Real Time
How do genetically identical cells give rise to diverse tissue types? The lab of Rudolf Jaenisch studies the epigenetic mechanisms that determine if and when genes are expressed in a cell, leading to variations in gene activity. In this 3D image of developing cells, different colors represent different activation states of an epigenetic process called DNA methylation, which suppresses gene activity. Analyzing epigenetic changes in real time across complex tissues and cell types at high resolution helps researchers understand how cells develop, and what goes wrong in cancer and other diseases. Yuelin Song, Rudolf Jaenisch Whitehead Institute and Koch Institute at MIT

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  • I really enjoyed this article. Thank you. I couldn’t help but envision several of these photos as sciency/abstract wall art ideas. Wonder if the artists have thought about selling their works 🙂

  • Fascinating magnifications of the tiniest particles from which our many parts are woven. What an ingenious evolutionary use of the ordinary!

  • Stunning display of Nature’s Art. Also interesting is how our scientific culture draws on the language of Combat to describe Biology (Natural Killer Cells, Preparing for Battle, Enemy, Interrogate, etc.) The War Metaphor must bias our view of the natural world, what we define as problems and the solutions we discover/create to address them. Medicines from other cultures (China, India, etc.) do not start out with the premise that Man is Against Nature and must control it.
    I wonder if we are shooting ourselves in the foot and the heart with our premise?

    • I have questioned the “war metaphor” myself, especially with regard to end of life care. Our premise seems to be, “death is the enemy.” But this premise leaves us always defeated. Death always wins. I wonder how our health care and lives would change if we could change our paradigm and
      meet death as an equal and a friend.

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