Cells’ stunning complexity on display in a new online portal

3-D images of cells
VARIATIONS ON A CELL Although these stem cells are all genetically identical, they can adopt a variety of shapes. Here, the cells’ membranes are cyan, and DNA is colored magenta.

Computers don’t have eyes, but they could revolutionize the way scientists visualize cells.

Researchers at the Allen Institute for Cell Science in Seattle have devised 3-D representations of cells, compiled by computers learning where thousands of real cells tuck their component parts.

Most drawings of cells in textbooks come from human interpretations gleaned by looking at just a few dead cells at a time. The new Allen Cell Explorer, which premiered online April 5, presents 3-D images of genetically identical stem cells grown in lab dishes (composite, above), revealing a huge variety of structural differences.

Each cell comes from a skin cell that was reprogrammed into a stem cell. Important proteins were tagged with fluorescent molecules so researchers could keep tabs on the cell membrane, DNA-containing nucleus, energy-generating mitochondria, microtubules and other cell parts. Using the 3-D images, computer programs learned where the cellular parts are in relation to each other. From those rules, the programs can generate predictive transparent models of a cell’s structure (below). The new views, which can capture cells at different time points, may offer clues into their inner workings.

3-D view of a cell
Machine-learning programs…