Biologists have learned to inflate and stain cells, making them visible to the naked eye

(ORDO NEWS) — The new method allows cells to be filled with hydrogel, physically expanding them to the size of tiny grains. Thanks to this, they can be seen even without a microscope.

The average size of a human cell is 50 micrometers, and intracellular organelles are even ten times smaller.

To distinguish a single cell, at least a simple microscope is required, and for the organelles in it, it is already quite powerful and complex.

However, a new technology developed by scientists from Yale University, allows you to “inflate” the cells to a size that allows them to be seen with the naked eye.

The concept of “expansion microscopy” (Expansion Microscopy, ExM) was first described back in 2015.

The sample is immersed in a hydrogel composed of sodium acrylate and other small molecules that are able to enter the cells.

Once inside, they polymerize and absorb moisture, literally “inflating” the cells and at the same time keeping them from destruction.

The volume of the cells increases thousands of times, but all the contents are highly diluted with water and become transparent.

Therefore, scientists using ExM were forced to supplement the method with sophisticated fluorescent labeling techniques.

Biologists have learned to inflate and stain cells making them visible to the naked eye 2
ExM scheme; on the right is a sample in which it is easy to distinguish individual cells, the size of which makes them visible to the eye

Professor Beversdorf’s team improved the technology by finding simple and affordable means of staining cells and their contents.

To do this, they are treated with polymers that bind to protein molecules, and pigments deposited on the surface of these polymers.

Additionally, the signal is amplified by silver sputtering. As a result, enlarged cells and even some organelles and protein aggregations can be seen with the naked eye, without the use of a microscope.

According to scientists, by combining magnification and staining, it is possible to obtain preparations that allow one to consider the shape of individual cells, areas of intercellular interactions (including synapses, if we are talking about neurons), and inside – to distinguish between the nucleus and cytoplasm.

With the help of the simplest “school” microscope, even more details can be seen, including the folded membranes of mitochondria.

Until now, this has required much more complex tools, the cost of which can reach a million dollars.


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