Bloody Palpitations

The above image comes from a press release from MIT (which can be read ina recent issue of MIT’s Tech Talk as well) that describes work being done on imaging living cells. The cells in question (as the colors chosen for the height scale so transparently suggest) are red blood cells, and the “quantitative phase imaging” technique allows for observations of the cells’ shapes down to a few nanometers.

The spiffy thing? High resolution in scale allows us to see fluctuations in the membranes as they allow ions into and out of the cell. Cells prone to swelling can burst, and swollen cells also palpitate less, so studying their motion numerically is a boon to understanding the physical processes at work. This could help us understand diseases such as malaria and sickle-cell anemia at the scale of the blood cells themselves.

(As far as I understand, quantitative phase imaging has been used in Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) for some time, so its application in light spectroscopy is a new thing. Especially since you can’t use TEM to observe living cells. Just FYI, this differs from the technique I’d described earlier on this blog for tagging individual stem cells in bone marrow.)

I quite like the image above. What’s the Hitchcock quote? “Blood is jolly, red.” You take one look and you get a general sense of what’s going on, and the scale to the right provides a little more info. Nice.

Numerous other pictures accompany the press release, including a series of false-color images that reveal both normal and abnormal cells. Sadly, the captions shed little light (spectroscopic or otherwise) on what the images actually depict. Particularly egregious is a rather incomprehensible figure—according to its caption, it “shows the correlation between cell shape and membrane dynamics,” but what exactly does that mean? Of all places, it seems that MIT would want to present imagery that could be read across a variety of technical disciplines, and this figure doesn’t cut it! Couldn’t we get more information than “Δu&sup2(q)” versus “q” (although they kindly include units)? I’ll tell you this much—a little research revealed that “discocyte,” “echinocyte,” and “spherocyte” refer to diffferent red blood cell morphologies (cf. a “scientific highlight” from Australia for more information).

My gripe here is just that captions, particularly in press releases, should give enough information for a well-informed non-specialist to get a handle on the information being presented. After all, science reporters are most likely generalists who will appreciate whatever cues you can provide.

(Thanks to Phile Schewe and his “Physics News Update.” Also, I ran across another informative web site in my searches. Lots of info about cell biology. And very difficult quizzes!)