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Any true Montrealer will confirm that to know this fair city, you have to set eyes on it - a series of snapshots just won't do. For Jackie Vogel, cell biologist and director of McGill's Cell Imaging and Analysis Network (CIAN), the same is true of living cells: why use a simple microscope slide when you have a 6D imaging system?
Over the last eight months, Vogel and her team of students and fellow biologists have been developing a cutting-edge facility in the Stewart Biology Building devoted to the live examination of cellular activity and spatial relations on a very small scale. Using low light 6D imaging the Vogel group can obtain extremely high-resolution automated images of living cells that they later analyze on widescreen monitors. The 6D imaging combines the regular x, y and z axis data of 3D imaging, with time as a fourth axis, and then two more spectrally distinct channels.
Other CIAN equipment allows researchers to correlate their image analysis with in vivo post-translational modification (PTMs) that monitors changes in the cell's proteome. By observing the cell divisions of yeast organisms in particular, they get closer to understanding the complex molecular causes of diseases like cancer.
"If I had this technology when I was an undergrad, I don't even know if I'd be the same person," says Vogel of her facility, dubbed Canada's largest deployment of networked imaging and analysis systems. "Until I began using some of these technologies I still did not appreciate what a living cell is like, or how little we know about its true complexity."
Whereas earlier prototypes tended to damage cells, Vogel's combined microscope and ultra sensitive digital camera system uses a "spinning disk" to spread a single wavelength of light over a cell and detect single molecules and sub-cellular structures like microtubules in as little as thirty milliseconds of exposure. The system owes its ever-evolving sophistication to a sustained collaboration between the university and the equipment's developers.
"An important aspect of this facility is our relationship with the companies that produce the technologies - their products are made better by working with us," explains Vogel, citing Quorum Technologies, GE Healthcare, Invitrogen, and Apple computers as her key partners.
The facility's equipment is so new and intricate that three PhD scientists were hired to help researchers operate the system and to devise new methods of using it. As the project grows, Vogel will turn to robotics to facilitate impartial, unbiased observations of the vast quantity of information her team accumulates. Her main aim, however, is to promote interaction with outside experts.
"This particular facility was developed so it would benefit not only McGill but all our collaborators," she explains. Indeed, the facility is uniquely designed to store all the accumulated data on one central, unified server, accessible to all collaborators, whether down the hall or across the world. What's more, thanks to generous company donations, professors are able to expose biology students of all levels to the CIAN infrastructure, thus promoting extensive creative research and analysis.
For Vogel, studying live cells without her new technologies is tantamount to inspecting an enormous factory at night with nothing but a flashlight. While there is much left to fine-tune over the coming year, she says, CIAN's potential for advancing cell biology is undeniable. "Now, at the very least, we can walk around a lot longer with a lot more flashlights!"