Cell Biology’s Super Resolution Revolution Stars at AAAS Meeting

"The Beauty and Benefits of Science" was the title of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2013 Annual Meeting that I attended last week in Boston. In other words, science is cool. Indeed, I heard a lot of cool science and I had many cool discussions with old friends and made new ones. However it did not help that I came down with a cold at the meeting—that was not cool, just cold—but I kept going, simply trading handshakes for air high-fives to avoid spreading germs.

The strength of the AAAS meeting is its breadth; it covers all sciences. The challenge is also its breadth. For policy and communications wonks, AAAS offers a bird's eye view of science, but for those who want an in-depth look at a particular field, the AAAS meeting can be frustrating. Still the meeting stimulated my thinking on creative ways to communicate about cell biology through the ASCB's redesigned website. I especially enjoyed the daylong seminar on social media and scientific communications.1 Lots of food for thought there, at a time when we are revamping ASCB's electronic communications. Stay tuned, more to come on this.

I was blown away by a session on innovations in imaging2, featuring among others, ASCB President-Elect Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz. Historically, cell biologists had to make do with a static view of the cell because they were observing fixed cells at relatively low resolution. That's changed enormously in recent years and the rate of change seems to be accelerating. The availability of fluorescent probes, innovations in the physical sciences (resulting in new microscope technologies), mathematical modeling, and new cell biological methods have taken us from viewing the static dead cell, cultured on a coverslip in a Petri dish, to entering the dynamic environment of living cells in living organisms. This was unimaginable just a decade ago. Today we can—thanks to super resolution—observe de facto single molecule activity. It gives a new meaning to the line that you constantly hear in cell biology departments: "Do the proteins co-localize?" At these levels of super resolution, nothing co-localizes. Instead you can measure how far two molecules are from each other! As reported in Boston, these advances are already having a clinical impact on diagnostics for metastatic cancers.

The session reminded me of a couple of recent intriguing papers where systems biologists are revisiting classical chemical equations such as the Michaelis-Menten model for enzyme kinetics to precisely measure what happens not just in the artificial controlled situations but in real cellular settings. These researchers have been able to describe, through ordinary differential equations, the characteristics, positioning, and relative concentration of small molecules that perturb and influence the whole cellular system.3, 4 In my view, this kind of approach is analogous to the imaging revolution as it transitions cell biology from studying still pictures to making dynamic movies in living organisms.

Advances like these are changing the way we understand biology, reminding us that despite the great progress we have made in the past century we still have much to discover. How much do we know of what we should know? Arguably, 5-10%. We think we know a lot, but in reality, we don't. Currently, researchers must screen roughly 10,000 molecules to find just one that will be approved by the FDA. While this is certainly a compounded problem, involving challenges in policy and regulatory science, it also has a strong scientific component, which lies at the heart of the complexity of biology. If we knew everything we needed to know, the process would be much more efficient.

Will the 21st century be the century of biological sciences? I think it likely. But if we want to reap the benefits from our investment in research, we need to ensure that we have a system that fosters innovation, rewards creativity, and trains a strong and diversified workforce. Young investigators won't have to spend so much time worrying about jobs. Instead they would concentrate on asking the right scientific question, formulating the optimal design for the next experiment, and identifying the right collaborator. It is the ASCB's responsibility to help create this ecosystem for the future of science and the future of society.

  1. http://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2013/webprogram/meeting2013-02-14.html
  2. http://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2013/webprogram/Session5913.html
  3. Chen WW, Niepel M, Sorger PK (2010). Classic and contemporary approaches to modeling biochemical reactions. Genes Dev 24, 1861-1875.
  4. Gillespie DT (2007). Stochastic simulation of chemical kinetics. Annu Rev Phys Chem 58, 35-55.
Stefano Bertuzzi

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi is the Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology. In this position he is responsible, with the ASCB Board, for strategic planning and all operations at the Society to serve the needs of its ~9,000 members and to promote the field of cellular biology and basic science.

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