It is a well-known phenomenon that you come up with some of your best ideas when you are thinking late at night. Such an occurrence happened to me, and I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts. But first, I have to cover a little background.
Much of my undergraduate work involved immunofluorescence: a type of staining in which fluorescently-tagged antibodies are applied to a specimen, target your epitope of interest, and fluoresce when exposed to certain wavelengths of light. In other words: they glow under the right conditions, showing you exactly the structures of the cell you want to see. In effect, this means that when you look through the eyepieces of a fluorescent microscope, the cellular world explodes in a vivid landscape of vibrant hues before your eyes.
If you don’t believe me, check out the gif below. With the help of some excellent people at the University of Iowa’s microscopy core, we were able to visualize the lizard neuromuscular junction using a confocal microscope so sensitive it can distinguish between fluorophores of extremely similar wavelengths: it could tell the difference between two hues of red, for example. The result, in my opinion, both intellectually and aesthetically pleasing.
Now, the microscope I was using for these experiments moved the slide around much the way a traditional microscope does: the right hand controls movement on the x and y planes while the left hand focuses on the z plane. This begins to feel quite intuitive after repeated use.
The microscope I used this afternoon though, has no such controls. You can’t even see the slide. You simply put the slide on a plate, put the plate in the machine, and close the lid. The rest of the work – light exposure, positioning, everything – is done by software provided by the microscope’s manufacturer. This means the centuries old stereotype of a scientist hunched over at his microscope is becoming obsolete. Instead, in our technological age, a scientist is simply a person at a computer, flicking through tissues and cellular components with casual keystrokes and mouse clicks.
An important paradigm shift as a result of this change is that the people who will now be controlling how we view the microscopic world are computer scientists and software engineers. This means that our microscopic world is beginning to be manipulated with the infinite possibility of the digital realm. Already we have seen incredibly detailed computer simulations of the cell and proteins visualized in 3D on your smartphone. What will the ever-improving world of computer science give to biology next?
I don’t know what industry leaders are planning, but if it were me, I’d want to make the microscopic world fun and accessible. The mouse clicks and keystrokes I was using to control my collaborator’s microscope this afternoon represent an interface between me, the software, and consequentially the microscope. This interface could be switched with more accessible, intuitive interfaces. The next step would undoubtedly be a touch surface, probably first through a touch desktop machine and possibly simplifying to a tablet. And normally I would say that would be cool enough – God knows I would start drooling at the idea of making in-depth images from actual slides through something so simple as a tablet.
But I walked past the Microsoft store the other day, and one of the workers was playing with a Kinect. The gestures were so simple and intuitive, and I suddenly imagined viewing the microscopic world in such a way. The Kinect, after all, is simply another interface. It is within the realm of possibility – given current technology – that I could image cells at resolutions smaller than than a micrometer using only hand gestures. Switch objectives with a wave, change emitted wavelengths by voice command, and take an image with the snap of the fingers: to me, this is far cooler than mouse clicks and key strokes.