Researchers at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry have come up with a better way to study cell proteins – by filming them in action. In a new study published in the Journal of Cell Biology, the research team presented its findings on how genetic information gets transported across the living cell and directs the creation of cell proteins.
A major advance in the technologies of cell biology research, the new study uses a specially designed high-powered microscope to observe in real time the movement of RNA molecules. Up until now, scientists have had to rely on static images taken at intervals in order to piece together a picture of molecular movement within the living cell. But this left a lot of questions unanswered – how exactly does RNA move from cell nucleus to cytoplasm (the site where proteins are replicated), what route does the RNA take and, crucially, how do mutations arise during this process?
“With the old technology, we could tell there was a defect but could not tell where it was happening. Now we can see the errors occurring in real time,” says Ben Montpetit, senior author of the study and Assistant Professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Cell Biology. “And already with this new imaging technique we’re seeing defects that we didn’t expect. It just highlights how useful this new technology is going to be.”
Importantly, this new way of studying cell protein development could pave the way for breakthroughs in the health sciences and the treatment of disease.
“We really need to understand the system, and this technology is allowing us to do that now,” adds Azra Lari, lead author of the study and a PhD candidate in the Department of Cell Biology.
Imaging technology is a rapidly changing field in the biological sciences, with more and more research technology companies producing commercially available microscopy systems and software for use in medical research.
For live-cell imaging, the new developments are game changing. While short term observation of living cells through phase contrast and fluorescent microscopy has been available since the middle of last century, the long term observation of living cells had been impossible prior to the development of instruments allowing for the precise control of environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity and gas concentrations, all of which can affect cell behaviour and create experiment-ruining variability.
“Over the run of a protracted experiment, subtle differences in culture conditions can start to look like cell behaviour,” says Alfred Bahnson, a biologist at Kairos Instruments in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which manufactures optically accessible environmental chambers and other long-term imaging products. “Movement that appears to be cell migration might instead be cells moving downhill or following slight temperature gradients.”
RNA or ribonucleic acid is the single-stranded molecule that carries the cell’s genetic information from the DNA stored within the nucleus to the ribosome where proteins are created.
The new research was the result of an international collaboration between the University of Alberta, the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich.