This entry is part 1 of 30 in the series Science Snaps

From revealing the structure of the tiny molecular machines working inside our cells to creating an image of a tumour to help plan surgery, images are a key part of research.

They add to our understanding of cancer, but they can also look stunning, and in the case of the above picture, eerily beautiful.

In this new series of posts, we’ve scoured our labs across the country for some of the most interesting research images we could find. We’ve spoken to the researchers who’ve produced these captivating images and asked them about the science behind the snaps.

Sensing a good image

The first image in our Science Snaps series comes from two PhD students – Kinga Bercsenyi and Martin Wallace – who work in the lab of Professor Gipi Schiavo at our London Research Institute.

The lab focuses on nerve cells and how an efficient internal ‘postal service’ is needed for these cells to do their jobs.

In some nerve cells this job is to help sense the world around us and allow us to perceive things like touch, heat and pain.

By looking in microscopic detail at nerve cells, Professor Schiavo’s lab can see what goes wrong if the postal service fails.

If there are mistakes in how a cell stamps, addresses or delivers its packages this can lead to numerous diseases, including cancer.

What does the image show?

It may look like a deep and mysterious pool but Kinga and Martin’s image is actually thousands of specialised sensory nerve cells called dorsal root ganglion cells grouped together and radiating outwards like the roots from a tree.

In our bodies these cells clump together by our spinal cord and act as a junction box that carries signals from sensory organs to the brain.

The blue shows where DNA is and this helps the scientists spot a cell’s control centre – the nucleus. You can see that the nuclei of the cells are bunched together in the middle, just like they would be in the dorsal root ganglion.

The long roots – known as axons – are stained red and stretch out from the central pool. The red shows where a molecule that forms part of a cell’s internal skeleton called tubulin is located.

And the green highlights molecules travelling inside individual cells via the cellular postal service.

How was it made?

The scientists first had to seed a few of these cells in a specialised gel to help them grow and hold them in place. Much like we would use soil and a plant-pot to grow flowers.

They gave the cells a few days to grow and extend their roots before getting the cells ready for their close-up.

To achieve the multicoloured effect they used fluorescent molecules that stick to other molecules within the cell.

The fluorescent molecules glow when a laser is shined on them using a specialised – and expensive – microscope.

The microscope then allows the researchers to snap pictures of the cells to get an idea of how they work.

What does it tell us?

It’s all well and good making some cells brightly coloured, but what can we learn from images like this?

Growing cells in a gel and pinpointing different coloured molecules helps the scientists test if the cell forms the correct shape or delivers its post correctly.

They can look if a cell is pointing in the right direction – something known as polarity – and all of these observations can help us understand many diseases, especially cancer.

As Kinga says “By planting them into dishes and observing their behaviour we can get crucial information on the exact molecular mechanisms behind these diseases.”

Clearing up the mystery

There’s an impressive mixture of skill, sophisticated equipment and a keen eye for detail that allows our scientists to create images like this.

And these skills haven’t gone unnoticed – many award-winning images have come from our labs.

Scientific images have the power to draw us in through their mystery whilst also helping us to answer crucial questions.

With a growing array of advanced imaging techniques at their fingertips, our scientists are well equipped to takes snaps of these microscopic worlds, making discoveries that ultimately help us find new ways to tackle cancer in the future.

We look forward to sharing more spectacular images – and the fascinating science they help to illuminate – over the coming months.