3-D imaging and modern electron microscopy to see cellular structures in high resolution

March 27, 2014 by Leah Burrows
Reconstructed 3-D cilia in sensory neurons.

You've never seen cilia like these before. Brandeis University researchers have developed a new model to study these tiny but vital cellular structures with more clarity and detail than ever before, providing a clearer picture on how cilia are shaped, structured and how they interact with their environment.

The team, lead by professors of biology Daniela Nicastro and Piali Sengupta, published their findings in the journal eLife on March 25.

Cilia, antenna-like appendages of cells, come in many shapes and sizes, each fulfilling a different purpose. Some help propel cells or fluids along tissues, others have sensory functions, gathering information about the animal's environment. Humans see, hear and smell using cilia—human olfactory neurons have a tuft of about six to 17 cilia that house smell-signaling proteins. Without effective cilia, cells and whole organ systems can malfunction, degenerate and die, leading to disorders such as anosmia (loss of smell), blindness or Polycystic Kidney Disease.

Nicastro and Sengupta, with postdoctoral fellows David Doroquez and Cristina Berciu, studied cilia in the in the noses of roundworms. To do so, the team needed to quickly preserve the worm without changing its cellular structure and take very thin slices off its nose. They employed a state-of-the-art technique that involved freezing the worms in a matter of milliseconds at a pressure almost twice as high as the deepest part of the world's oceans. The team then slowly replaced the frozen water molecules with a preservative solution and thinly sliced the nose—cutting each slice about 1,400 times thinner than a sheet of paper.

3-D imaging and modern electron microscopy to see cellular structures in high resolution
Reconstructed 3-D cilia in sensory neurons

They used and electron tomography to acquire images of the ultra-thin sections and then fed these images into a computer to combine them into 3D reconstructions and models. More than 120,000 images were recorded for this study.

The results are mesmerizing—beautifully detailed 3-D models of various types of cilia extending from 50 neurons. Some are simple rods, or two branches splitting from a shared dendritic trunk; others are more complex, shaped like leaves, vines, Weeping Willows or tree arbors. The high resolution images allowed for the discovery of dendritic branches that are 40 times thinner than an E. coli bacterium.

Understanding the spectrum of cilium shape and can help scientists explore how these contribute to specific and which genes control those unique architectures.

Explore further: Connecting cilia: Cellular antennae help cells stick together

More information: The full paper with movies is available on eLife: elife.elifesciences.org/content/3/e01948

Related Stories

Connecting cilia: Cellular antennae help cells stick together

April 24, 2012

Primary cilia are hair-like structures which protrude from almost all mammalian cells. They are thought to be sensory and involved in sampling the cell's environment. New research, published in BioMed Central's open access ...

Recommended for you

Most EU nations seek to bar GM crops

October 4, 2015

Nineteen of the 28 EU member states have applied to keep genetically modified crops out of all or part of their territory, the bloc's executive arm said Sunday, the deadline for opting out of new European legislation on GM ...

Ancestral background can be determined by fingerprints

September 28, 2015

A proof-of-concept study finds that it is possible to identify an individual's ancestral background based on his or her fingerprint characteristics – a discovery with significant applications for law enforcement and anthropological ...

Trade in invasive plants is blossoming

October 3, 2015

Every day, hundreds of different plant species—many of them listed as invasive—are traded online worldwide on auction platforms. This exacerbates the problem of uncontrollable biological invasions.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.