October 11, 2013
I See You, You Little Genes
Have you ever stopped to think about just how much is going on all around you? Have you ever looked at your own skin and imagined all of the microscopic parts of yourself that you never thought you could see? Does it every bother you that, while you are a single individual, there are so many components to you that they are truly beyond count? Just beyond this world we see before us, there is another world in which we can only imagine. A microscopic world. A world so miniscule, so tiny, that we can only view it from afar despite it being right in front of us. Yet it is this world and all that makes it up that make us who we are. Countless individual parts coming together to make a whole. Yet until now, there has been much of that world we could never see. There were parts of it too small for us to view, even with all of our modern technology.
Thanks to the hard work of PhD students Nico Battich and Thomas Stoeger, under the supervision of Professor Lucas Pelkmans of the University of Zurich, we have uncovered a little more of this unseen world. Using a combination of robotics, a supercomputer, and an automated fluorescence microscope, they have created a way of viewing the activity of genes in a single cell. What is more, they can also view the activity of many cells and compare the differences in activity between them. Thanks to them, we can now study genes in a whole new way, opening up countless new windows of insight we have never had.
Until now, the measurement of genes and their activity was done by measuring the amount of transcript molecules. Unfortunately, these techniques could not view the organization of transcript molecules within a cell. Not only is this new procedure able to do this, but it can measure the amount of transcript molecules of one thousand genes in ten thousand single cells, allowing researches to compare the activities inside them. The measurement of gene activity is commonly used for the medical diagnosis of cancer, which this new procedure of viewing gene activities will assist greatly. Thus far, this new method has revealed to researchers that individual cells differ greatly from one another in the activity of their genes. While some measure of differentiation was expected, the high variability in the organization of transcript molecules within even one cell, not to mention multiple cells, is staggering. Even so, there are distinct patters between them, which allow researchers to better determine the function of individual genes. This sort of analysis, especially when comparing healthy cells with cancer cells, may help lead scientists and researchers to discovering a way of treating the various forms of cancer.
I do not need to express just how amazing this is. Every day, it seems, we discover something new about this world that so many seem to think we already know everything about. Mankind is absolutely amazing, and this new method of seeing the unseen allows us a whole new way of looking at ourselves, and the various bits and pieces that make us up.
Image Credit: Thinkstock