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New Microscope Lets Scientists Make Movies of Early Animal Development

The transformation of a single cell into a complete animal is amazing and complicated. Cells must divide and migrate through the ever-changing embryo, shaping themselves into specialized organs. And it happens at a blistering pace: a zebrafish embryo, for example, goes from a single cell to 20,000 within the first 24 hours of life, as its basic body axis forms. And scientists are now able to marvel at this process in developing fish and flies with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution.

A new imaging method, which combines two established microscopy techniques, will allow researchers to study speedy cell processes over hours and days rather than seconds, and to examine how morphological defects arise in developing animals. The technology is described in a July 4, 2010, online publication of the journal Nature Methods. Philipp Keller, now a fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, collaborated on the work with scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), the University of Heidelberg, and the Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute. Ernst Stelzer of EMBL is the senior author on the publication.

Until two years ago, biologists who wanted to see the development of an entire embryo were simply out of luck. Available instruments such as confocal microscopes, which scan a biological sample using a single spot of laser light, were too slow to illuminate early development. The piercing light from these machines also burns out the fluorescent markers used to label a sample, and damages the specimen before one has the chance to observe it over time.

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