Beauty is in the eye of the microscopist

Scientists have been using microscopes to produce up-close views and gather data about cells and other tiny things for more than 400 years. Many times, however, those images are not just informative, they are beautiful.

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Actin network in mouse fibroblast (Image by Dong-Hwee Kim)

Dong-Hwee Kim, a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for NanoBioTechnology in the Whiting School of Engineering, frequently uses microscopy in his research on cell mechanics, a field he describes as “one of the fastest growing interdisciplinary fields in biology.”

Several of his images have not only yielded abundant quantitative and qualitative data, but they have netted him awards for scientific imaging.

In 2011 he earned an Image of Distinction Award from the Nikon Small World Competition for his photo of a dis-organized perinuclear actin cap stress fibers in a mouse embryonic fibroblast. That same year, he was awarded an Honorable mention from the American Society for Cell Biology 7th Annual Cell Biology film contest for his movie “Hurricane: Cell Cytoplasm Movements”. And in 2013, Kim took second place in the Biophysical Society’s, The Art of Science Image Contest for his dandelion-like representation of the geodesic actin network in a mouse fibroblast.

Kim says his primary focus in collecting these images has always been purely for scientific purposes. “I am trying to better understand how cells recognize the physical properties of the cell environment and respond to them,” he said.

Engineers have developed theories about cell mechanics and about what they expect to happen at the single cell level. But instead of describing the cell’s response with a computational model or other simulation, Kim was determined to capture actual images of live cells reacting to their surroundings.

Perinuclear actin cap stress fibers in a mouse embryonic fibroblast (Image by Dong-Hween Kim)

Perinuclear actin cap stress fibers in a mouse embryonic fibroblast (Image by Dong-Hwee Kim)

“Direct visualization of cell functions has become one of the most effective ways to support scientific findings, since it is the simplest but most powerful way to con-vince others,” he said.

Using various microscopy techniques, Kim has been able to visualize cell components, such as the nucleus or actin filaments, in very detailed ways. “It is always exciting to become the first one to show something that others haven’t seen yet,” he said.

Denis Wirtz, Kim’s advisor, noticed how beautiful the postdoc’s images were and suggested that he enter some of his work into popular imaging contests. Each contest focuses on a different theme, but the bottom line is that the images must be scientifically relevant as well as visually interesting. For example, the image of the geodesic actin network in the mouse embryonic fibroblasts, which were used for both the Nikon and Biophysical Society image contests, “directly visualized the mechanical and spatial coordinates of filamentous actin cytoskeleton in the cell,” said Kim. But the images also happen to be reminiscent of dandelions and fireworks.

Even if making a pretty picture is not the intent of the image, Kim thinks that having an artistic eye is important in science.

“I think artistic images in science should be based on a combination of aesthetic discrimination and scientific significance, which gives them unparalleled power to support scientific findings and persuade others,” Kim said.

The old saying goes, “a picture is worth 1,000 words.” In this case an expertly executed scientific image “can overcome myriad arguments,” Kim added.

Kim said his favorite imaging tool is the “confocal laser scanning microscopy, which allows high resolution images in cell biology, as well as qualitative and quantitative analysis of images.” He emphasizes that he does not use any software enhancements, such as Photoshop, to beautify his images. However, by attempting to create a beautiful image, he has developed several new imaging protocols.

“In challenging myself to create artistic images, it has sometimes led me to design new scientific methodologies that were not conventionally used in the field, and I think these efforts can contribute to the advancement of science,” Kim said.

This article was written by Mary Spiro, science writer for INBT at Johns Hopkins University, and first appeared in the 2013 issue of Nano-Bio Magazine.