Monday, February 16, 2009

A Still Point in Cell Motility Research

I study a group of single-cell organisms - the Foraminifera - that are incessantly busy. Within "foram" pseudopodia, which are the spiderweb-like projections seen in the photo below, one can watch (with a microscope) zillions of granules zipping to-and-fro; likewise, tiny particles picked up from the environment move back and forth along the pseudopodial surfaces. The rapid, bidirectional motion of these intracellular granules and surface-bound particles is a fascinating biological phenomenon I've been studying for a couple of decades now.

Watching this cellular hustle and bustle can make you feel frazzled and fried, particularly if you empathize with the foram. It has no still point in life as it prods and probes the environment for food and a mate. That is, no still point until a cell biologist enters its realm...

Phase contrast light micrograph of Allogromia with extended pseudopodia

I recall here a critical experiment performed as part of my dissertation research back in the early 80's. The question being asked was whether or not membrane surface motility, revealed by the movement of surface-bound latex spheres, was linked to a system of cytoskeletal elements called microtubules. (I'll blog about these miniscule protein tubes at a later time.) To find out, I was treating forams with various drugs that disassemble microtubules. The logic was simple: destroy microtubules and you stop cell processes that depend on them. My colleague Jeff Travis had already shown that these anti-microtubule drugs shut down intracellular transport in forams. Would they likewise stop the motion surface-bound particles? Late one night, alone in the lab, I was ready to find out.

Foram pseudopodia are a blur of activity. Seen here is a one-second exposure of pseudopodia imaged at high magnification. Because of the non-stop motion of intracellular granules, the 'pods appear smeared and uniformly dark; surface-bound latex spheres (1-micrometer in diameter) are seen as white streaks due to their movement along the 'pod surfaces.

It takes several hours to set up these experiments and, quite frankly, they're dangerous because they involve handling tiny amounts of some very potent compounds. It is not simple work, either: nimble hands, like those of an artist, are needed to seal perfusion chambers and assemble the intricate apparatus. Also like artists, an eye for the aesthetic is needed in order to record observations in ways that colleagues will appreciate. I remember my mentor Sam McGee-Russell saying "If it looks good, mate, the results will be more convincing." My other mentor, Conly Rieder, always said "Bowser, if you want to get a job in science, you better take pretty pictures!" We'll call it effective visual communication.

The stillness following drug treatment is manifest as sharp images. In this two-second exposure, the motionless granules inside the pseudopods are clearly seen. So, too, are the static, white latex spheres.

The result of this experiment was yes: take away microtubules and you stop membrane surface motility. Not to be too melodramatic, but the thrill of this discovery screamed in the silence of that evening, and I'll never forget its impact on my psyche. It was a still point for me (and literally for the foram) -- an "ah-hah!" moment shared with no one until the video recordings were shown to lab mates the following morning. The question I was addressing was based on the collective wisdom of hundreds of scientists over many decades, but this experiment was mine alone. Conducted alone, at night, just the way that science was "supposed" to be done. A still point indeed.

Few things are more beautiful than gleaning basic knowledge about the workings of the natural world. To me, it defines the sublime. And revealing that truth is art.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Compare and Contrast Art and Science

While we are off the ice, I'd like this blog to serve as a vehicle to comment on art/science collaboration. I'll begin with some of my (mis)perceptions:

My childhood impression was that scientists toil alone in a lab until the wee hours of night, striving for "ah hah!" moments. Solitude is something I've always been drawn toward, and a career in science seemed like my calling. But reality turned out to be far different. After 25 years as a biologist, I've learned that collaboration is the rule. I've now worked elbow-to-elbow with over 97 different scientists, and have published only two solo-authored papers; the others reflect joint efforts with these colleagues. I'm not complaining: the frantic exchange of ideas (and occasional cusses) inherent to healthy collaborative work is invigorating. And I've had enough moments of solitude doing experiments in the wee hours of night to touch my still point.

Until recently, I've harbored the impression that artists do indeed work alone in the studio, often 'till late at night, to ultimately produce a solo exhibition. (The exhibition being the art equivalent of science publications.) But is this really true? If so, it would clearly set art apart from science.

Since 2005, I've been collaborating with Claire Beynon on various art/science projects - mostly based on our joint work in Antarctica. In Albany, I've collaborated with artists Chris Moran and Elinor Mossop on related art/science ventures. This work has brought us in contact with Cynthia Pannucci and ASCI (Art & Science Collaborations, Inc.), and from these associations it has become clear that collaboration can be a powerful approach in art, just as it is in science. The Sound Still exhibition that Claire participated in a number of years ago is a good example.

An early Beynon-Bowser collaboration: DNA sequence of
Gromia and scanning electron micrograph of its gametes

Another childhood myth busted? I'd like to hear from other artists (and writers and poets...)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Tribute to a Friend

Today I lost another friend.

Karolyn Buttle was a microscopist with the High Voltage Electron Microscope facility at the Wadsworth Center. She always had a bright smile and was eager to assist with research challenges. I learned of the severity of her illness after seeking help with an art/science project. Despite the pain she was enduring, Karolyn immersed herself in the work and within a few days we had 3-D reconstructions of silver grains; with further refinement by her colleagues, these became the basis for a stunning art installation now on display at Mass MoCA.

Karolyn was a gifted, compassionate, and courageous woman. She will be greatly missed...

Karolyn's obituary can be found here. She also developed a web site where friends can visit and share memories.