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  • Science & Technology

Science Snaps: a sea of cells

by Greg Jones | Analysis

21 February 2014

1 comment 1 comment

This entry is part 3 of 30 in the series Science Snaps

Our selection for this month’s Science Snaps could be mistaken for a coral reef, alive with vivid colour in the shallows of a tropical sea.

Provided by Professor Inke Näthke at the University of Dundee, the images reveal a different mysterious depth and show the intricate structure of the cells that line the intestine.

In our previous Science Snaps posts, we’ve focused on the roles of individual cells and how advanced imaging is helping our researchers zoom in on cancer.

But what happens when lots of cells come together in one place?

Much like the reefs they resemble, the delicate structures you see above are built from thousands of cells, all working together to carry out their job. They must sense and react to their environment while also providing an important barrier between the complex mixture of a freshly digested lunch and the sensitive tissues inside our bodies.

Professor Näthke and her team believe that by understanding the molecular machinery responsible for these structures, and by monitoring how the cells respond to the world around them, we will gain new insights into how bowel cancer develops.

A sense of place

The microscopic world of mouse small intestine

The microscopic world of mouse small intestine

In the same way a coral reef can only flourish in the right place and under the right conditions, cells that line the intestine also need to have a sense of place in order to function properly.

They can tell up from down and front from back – something that’s really important when organising an intricate tissue structure.

But coming together to form a healthy, functioning tissue requires teamwork and coordination – otherwise the cells can’t take in what’s going on around them and react to changes.

It’s a complicated balancing act, and changes to key molecules can tip things out of control and have been linked to cancer.

If we can understand what causes cells to shut down communications with their neighbours, or lose sight of their surroundings, then we may be able to find new ways of treating the disease.

Professor Näthke, with the help of Dr Paul Appleton and the rest of the team at the University of Dundee, produce these stunning images to examine not only how cells move and divide but also how they know where they are and work together to build a functional tissue.

Looking in three dimensions

Zooming in on mouse colon

Zooming in on mouse colon

The images in this post depict the small intestine of a mouse and show the finger-like projections called villi that absorb nutrients from the food we eat.

They were taken using multi-photon microscopy, which uses a special type of microscope to shine infrared light deep into the samples to reveal their structure.

Each sample can be imaged from a different orientation to show the cellular architecture from a variety of angles. By combining multiple images, the team are able to build up a 3D picture of the structures in incredible detail.

Each blue blob is the DNA-containing nucleus of a single cell, which cluster together to form the body of each villus. The scarlet framework surrounding them shows the support proteins in a single layer of cells that cloak the villi and provide the barrier across which nutrients can be absorbed.

“We’re looking at the regularity of the cells and their nuclei: their size and shape, as well as where they sit in the overall structure,” says Inke.

“The benefit of 3D imaging is you can see how each cell sits in relation to its neighbours. By looking from different angles and orientations, you begin to understand more about how cell shape and arrangement allows the tissue to function correctly.”

Focussing on the early stages of cancer

Inke and her team are trying to better understand the events taking place on a molecular level that change cells during the first stages of cancer.

“Understanding how cells – and the tissues they form – are organised helps us to reliably spot the organisational changes taking place in cancer,” says Inke.

“It also helps us to understand how some of the molecular changes we know occur in cancer produce faulty cells, and how this ultimately produces tumours and stops the organs from functioning properly.”

The team also take videos of the cells and look at the changes in real time. By combining these views, they’re learning more about how cancer can be detected and potentially treated.

Their ultimate aim is to translate what they see in mouse models to help diagnose bowel cancer earlier in people, and potentially find new ways to treat the disease.

Greg Jones is a press officer at Cancer Research UK


  • Andrene Skinner
    6 March 2014

    Having just completed a ‘Future Learn’ course from Bath University entitled ‘Inside Cancer’, I found these images very interesting. Thank you for these.


  • Andrene Skinner
    6 March 2014

    Having just completed a ‘Future Learn’ course from Bath University entitled ‘Inside Cancer’, I found these images very interesting. Thank you for these.