Seeing What the Naked Eye Can’t

Microscopy images are often framed as snapshots—circumscribed parts of a whole that have been magnified to reveal their hidden features. But nothing in an organism works in isolation. After discerning individual components, scientists are tasked with charting how they interact with each other in the macrosystem of the body. Figuring this out requires not only identifying every component that makes up a particular cell, tissue, and organ but also placing them in relation to each other; in other words, making a map.

“Seeing these neighborhood-level details is essential to being able to understand how individual components work together in the environment of a cell,” he writes.

For the life sciences, where understanding the function of a living thing often requires interpreting its form, imaging is vital to confirming theories and revealing what is yet unknown.

These images show living neurons colored green and dead neurons colored yellow. Jeremy LinsleyCC BY-NC-ND

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The abstract qualities of science can be made tangible in ways that don’t involve sight. Proteins, for instance, can be translated into music by mapping their physical properties into sound: amino acids turn into notes, while structural loops become tempos and motifs. Computational biologists Peng Zhang and Yu Zong Chen enhanced the musicality of these mapping techniques by basing them on different music styles, such as that of Chopin. Consequently, a protein that prevents cancer formation, p53, sounds toccata-like, and the protein that binds to the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin flutters with recurring motifs.

This selection of stories from The Conversation’s archive presents a few ways in which microscopy has contributed to different forms of scientific knowledge, including techniques that take visualization beyond sight altogether.

1. Seeing as identifying

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Framing scientific images as art often requires no more than a change in perspective. And uncovering the poetry of science, many researchers would agree, can help reveal the artistry of life.

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“I anticipate seeing new theories on how we understand cells, moving from disorganized bags of molecules to intricately organized and dynamic systems,” writes Berg.

2. Seeing as scoping

Scientists are working to bridge that resolution gap. Improvements to the 2014 Nobel Prize-winning superresolution microscopy, for example, have enhanced the study of lengthy processes like cell division by capturing images across a range of size and time scales simultaneously, bringing clarity to details traditional microscopes tend to blur.

Published Aug. 22, 2023, on The Conversation.