Cells in action: a solution of two sciences



John Evans, Principal Investigator in the MacDiarmid Institute is based at the Centre for Neuroendocrinology, University of Otago, Christchurch.

Recently I visited four departments in Scotland and England, deciphered assorted accents and presented two seminars on our cell manipulation and imaging studies. The visits included discussions with members of groups who were considering two of the aspects that concern our studies in Theme 6, “The intersection of nanoscience and biology”. One question is how we persuade cells to become contentedly entrapped, like patients in a psychiatrist’s armchair, so that we can surreptitiously find out why they behave as they do. Another target centres on the events that produce the hormone-secreting pores which an atomic force micro­scope can visualise in three-dimensions.

I met Mathis Riehle in Glasgow, where the university spire, like a misaligned arrow on a powerpoint slide, pointed not very accurately in the direction of the spring sun that had been striving all morning to penetrate the mist. Mathis was in the university’s Rankine Building manufacturing surfaces on which cells are cultured. By varying arrangements of tiny cavities, mere wisps of channels and molecular clusters on the culture platforms the properties of the attached cells were altered. These studies are driven partly by surgeons who need scaffolds that will encourage cells to anchor and grow in a manner that fits with function: long for neurons, strong for bone, stretch­able for muscle. Across the campus, a PhD student, Gordon McPhee, uses an atomic force microscope to define cells” properties and was mapping stiffness and elasticity of some osteoblast cells from bone tissue.

Edinburgh appeared half-scrubbed, pale in some parts, like some of the students in the audience of my first seminar. A group, that includes Luke Chamberlain, Rory Duncan and Mike Cousins, uses advances in imaging technology to enhance their studies of the processes that occur during the secretion of proteins from cells at exocytosis and the recapture of the cell membrane during endocytosis. They use quantum dots, pH-dependent quenching of fluorescence and fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy among their high-technology, high-cost techniques. They produce fabulous fluorescent movies with molecular drama and philosophical entertainment that had less blood than “Kill Bill” but more colour than “Casablanca”.

In Bristol the taxi driver almost knew about Dorothy Hodgkin; he knew of her fame but not that crystallography was the reason for it. Inside the building named after her, beyond the affable security man, was where Craig McArdle and Jim Caunt also engaged in watching molecular behaviour, using high throughput, automated image analysis. It was here I gave my second seminar.

John Morris, in the Division of Medical Sciences, employed more traditional electron microscope methodologies in Oxford to consider the role of folliculo-stellate cells in the pituitary gland. These cells had been set aside several years ago as being non-endocrine and so not engaged in the scientifically fashion­able activities of the time. John has now discovered that they have a fascinating insidious influence on the activities of the gland, as if they are part of a cellular Civil Service.

The discoveries being made by this varied group of scientists illustrate the range of ways that the boundaries between engineering and biology dissolve. It is a conjunction of interests that in the last decade has advanced basic understanding of physiological processes and also introduced spectacular innova­tions for diagnosis and treatment of disease.