Auto-fluorescent proteins have become an indispensible tool for cell biology research over the past decade. Originating from sea creatures such as jellyfish and sea anemone, these fluorescent proteins come in a rainbow of colors and are used to monitor cellular processes like protein localization, receptor signaling, and protein trafficking.
A typical cell biologist spends much of his or her time planning experiments and culturing cells in a biosafety-controlled laboratory environment. Before the next test can be arranged, it is necessary to evaluate results from previous experiments. Given the increased role of “fluorescent tools” available to cell biologists, the need for fluorescence microscopy and experimental evaluation in the cell culture laboratory has increased. By design, however, the traditional fluorescence microscope functions optimally in the dark, leading to separate microscopy facilities. These facilities tend to house many complex microscope systems that require training and consistent use to maintain the skills needed to produce results.
Location, features, and the need for training are the main barriers to the accessibility of fluorescence microscopes. First, the location of the instrumentation is paramount: As cell culture takes place in ambient room light, so too must the evaluating of results. The device itself must be able to meet the needs of the cell biology researcher who, for example, typically uses many different types of sample vessels and often shares and documents his or her work. The required training needed to learn fluorescence microscopy is also a barrier that initially exists for all researchers, and can come at the cost of taking time away from making scientific advancements. Finally, instrumentation expense can hold back individual labs or smaller colleges, costing $50k-$250k.
In this article, we will look at how fluorescence microscopy has been made accessible through a paradigm shift in the design and engineering of benchtop imaging devices.
Setting the Stage: Traditional Microscopes
Traditional fluorescence microscopes are built for maximal flexibility and may best be likened to flying a jet aircraft. There are knobs, buttons, and levers to control nearly every aspect of the device. With the flexibility, however, comes several drawbacks. Designed for the dark, traditional fluorescence microscopes are kept in rooms devoid of light, much like a film-processing dark room. Complexity results from each element including mirror alignment, focus, light intensity, and filter configuration having the ability to be adjusted, and perhaps incorrectly adjusted, by a novice or untrained user. Physical size is bulky due to each component (microscope base unit, camera, light source, power supply, computer, and monitor) being a separate part. Ergonomically speaking, the traditional microscope appears to be designed based on functionality first and user experience second. Lastly, the user interface is typically cluttered and contains many adjustable parameters, making it only available to experienced users.
Fluorescence Microscopy in Room Light
Industrial design is often considered important for aesthetics and utility, but it can also become an enabling feature. By placing a light shield over where the sample goes, tools like the FLoid™ cell imaging station from Life Technologies Corp. (see image above) capture fluorescence images under normal, ambient room lighting. The light shield effectively blocks room light from entering the optical light path at the objective lens. This industrial design element places the device in a cell culture lab, and effectively brings fluorescence imaging to the cell biologist. The light shield also hinges upward to allow samples to still be precisely positioned on the stage. The light shield design element makes fluorescence microscopy accessible by overcoming the barrier of location.