MDI Biological Laboratory

Excited about light

  • May 23, 2022

Think back to the last time you peered through a microscope. Was it in your high school biology class? 

Were you to walk into the Training Lab at MDI B​iological L​aboratory this week, you probably wouldn’t recognize the scene: leading manufacturers such as Nikon and Leica have brought the latest in computer-aided microscopes and analysis tools for imaging very small cells in living and non-living systems ​to our campus.

After a two-year hiatus, we’re delighted to welcome the popular Quantitative Fluorescence Microscopy (QFM) course back to MDI Biological Laboratory. QFM has been hosted at MDIBL for at least the last twenty years.

But, what *is* fluorescence microscopy? You might be familiar with the glow-in-the-dark light emitted by fireflies on a hot summer night or bioluminescent creatures in the ocean. These types of light are comparable, though not exactly the same.

In the simplest terms, fluorescence is light that has been absorbed and then is reemitted when the molecule is excited. Fluorescence microscopes are used  to study everything from living organisms to rocks and minerals. They are particularly helpful in studying very small components in cells and tissues that are not visible under a traditional light microscope.

At MDIBL, scientists add fluorescence to specific proteins, antibodies, or amino acids they are studying, which can then be directly tracked under the microscope. It gives scientists a way to “see in what tissue, in what cell type, and in what areas of the cell interactions are happening, and to see how dynamic they are,” says Dustin Updike, Ph.D., who uses this style of microscopy for his research in germ cells in the roundworm C. elegans.

Students come from all over the world for this one-week intensive to learn everything microscopy-related, from the principles of fluorescence imaging to multidimensional imaging in living cells, as well as the theory, mechanics, and applications of fluorescence imaging methods. Students are encouraged to bring specimens from their own research labs to process and analyze. Course director Simon Watkins, Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh, is simply “happy to be back at the sea, in a unique relaxed playground, doing what I love best with some of my closest friends and colleagues: geeking out with microscopes, robotics and computing.”